Appropriately enough, the first thing you see when you walk into Fenster Zum Klo: Public Toilets, Private Affairs, an exhibit at Berlin’s Schwules* Museum about cruising for gay sex in public toilets, is a huge reproduction of a public toilet. The show also features hundreds of historical photos of cruising spots and a comprehensive overview of gay public sex throughout history—but little of that struck me in the way a series of original, staged photos of men caught in the act of cruising taken by its curator, Marc Martin, did.
Martin’s photos recreate scenes of men congregating in old Berlin toilets that were once legitimately cruisey. You see flashes of a hard dick, an exposed ass, a man on his knees at a urinal, three men grabbing a guy’s ass and taking control. But it wasn’t the hyper-sexuality of the photos that grabbed me. It was the golden light that haloed the scenes, the tenderness on the men’s faces, the beauty and romance and desire they portrayed—how clearly these men wanted not just to be fucked, but to be loved.
I was there at the exhibition with my boyfriend, Noah, and I was overcome with emotion when I saw them, because it was that desire to be loved, that longing for romance and adventure, that made my own experiences with cruising so powerful, full of moments I would carry with me my whole life.
The photos brought me back to when I was 17, when I would sneak out of my best friend’s apartment and go to the Ramble, the infamous cruising spot in Central Park. The first time I went, it was dusk on a summer day in New York City, the sky a brilliant set of firey oranges and pinks slowly fading into dark.
I remember the excitement I felt walking along the lake to the bridge that would take me into the labyrinth of paths. Ahead of me I saw a man in a suit walking next to a much older man dressed in leather, and I followed them off into a secluded patch of bushes.
I watched, mesmerized, as the young man in the suit was pushed to his knees, and then kissed the crotch of the leather man, slowly unzipped his pants, and took him in.
From the tree above me, I heard a voice ask, “Hey, blondie, what’re you doing out here? Watching the faggots suck dick?”
I looked up to see a shockingly handsome Dominican kid my age, with black curly hair and golden eyes.
“Nothing,” I said. “Smoking. What are you doing out here?”
“Just watching the faggots,” he laughed. “I’m a faggot, too. No better place to learn the tricks than up here.”
He jumped out of the tree. Startled, the men ran off.
His name was Rafael. We made out in the bushes until the early morning and told each other everything and anything, sharing as much of our lives as we could in those brief hours.
It began to rain, and he gave me his jacket. He whispered, “I love you,” in my ear, the two of us too young to know what love really was, and we made plans to meet again in the park the following Sunday.
For three months, Rafael and I explored the Ramble, our sexuality and each other. We would cruise together, sometimes watching as other men fucked, sometimes putting on our own shows, sometimes joining in with those we met. Rafael liked to watch me with other guys. I liked to be on my knees, looking up as he made out with someone new and strange. I liked seeing him happy.
The last time I saw Rafael was on the Christopher Street docks; he told me his father had found gay porn under his bed and kicked him out. We slept out there on the docks that night, my arms wrapped around him, trying to keep him safe. The next morning we made plans to meet later in the week, but he never showed up, leaving me heartbroken and sad, cruising those trails alone, looking only to recreate what I'd found with Rafael.
Standing before Martin’s photos, with Noah by my side, I felt that same infatuation, that unrestrained kind of love I had experienced that first night with Rafael. It was a sense of wonder and excitement spurred on by the serendipity of cruising, the idea that you could forget your inhibitions and meet someone incredible, brought together by fate in the trails.
One of Martin’s photos stuck out to me in particular. It was of a golden haired boy standing apart from the action at the urinals, looking at the camera. I thought he was beautiful. I wanted to step into the photo, to hold his hand, to kiss him. I wanted to listen to him as he told me the stories of his life. All those feelings washed over me then—a sense of nostalgia and wonder, and the loss and mourning I felt when I lost Rafael.
I reached out for Noah’s hand, my fingers brushing up against his. I tried to find the words to tell him what I was feeling, but I couldn't, and I knew with Noah it wouldn’t matter anyway, that he had a way of understanding me that defied words.
Watch 'Moonlight' director Barry Jenkins discuss gay identity and sexuality with VICE:
Cruising can bring together people from wildly different paths in life, and that’s part of its magic. I'll never forget one night in the men's room at the school where I got my MFA in fiction in New York. I remember standing at the urinal between two men, while others stood behind us in the stalls, the doors open, everyone waiting for someone to make the first move. I’m not sure who it was, but soon I was on my knees sucking two dicks at once, while a man was bent over a toilet next to me getting fucked. The next thing I knew, the two of us were bent over the same toilet while the other three took turns on us. I’ll never forget looking into his eyes and seeing how clear and blue and full of excitement they were. All I wanted to do was kiss and hold him.
Afterward, we met downstairs in the lobby. His name was Jan; he said he’d recently moved from Poland to Queens, where he lived with his brother and sister-in-law. We went for dumplings and borscht in the East Village, and he asked me to spend the night with him after. He told me he was engaged to a girl from Warsaw, and nobody knew he was bi. His brother was staying with his wife’s family in New Jersey, so we would have the apartment to ourselves.
We spent that night talking and hugging, kissing and fucking. I told him that I was moving to Los Angeles after I finished my masters. He said he always wanted to visit LA, but it seemed so far away, and besides, soon he would be married and have a baby. There would be no more time for nights like this.
The next morning we ate leftover pierogi and drank dark espresso. I remember how quiet he was while we fucked—it was as if he feared that if he made a noise his secret would be revealed.
I asked if I could see him again, and he told me no. I ran into him years later. He said he lived on the Upper East Side with his wife and their newborn. He smirked, and something in his smile and eyes felt sad to me.
One of my sexiest cruising experiences came in a bathroom in a San Francisco park. I was out walking with my mother and her partner, and I legitimately had to pee. When I walked in, I saw two men, and I knew I had broken something up. I stood silently at the urinal, not pissing, signaling that they should continue.
I watched as one dropped to his knees and began to suck the other man off. I began to jerk off, and I was transfixed by the look of excitement and pleasure on the man’s face as he slowly came to orgasm. I timed it so we would cum at the same time. Watching him get blown, I felt as if it were me, and his pleasure became mine.
I told my mother about it later that night over steaks. (I have a very liberal mother.) I explained how, after, walking through the park, I had felt a sense of loneliness, a strange feeling after the pure joy I'd had in the bathroom.
“In the end, we just want someone to love, don’t we?” she said. “More than sex, more than almost anything, we just want to feel connected to another person.”
When Noah and I left the museum, it was dark out. Berlin felt empty and magical, lit up in shadowy lights that danced on the barren, snow-covered streets.
“I’ve never done any of those things,” Noah said, referring to cruising public spaces. And it’s strange that something that was such a huge part of my life is, for many, a relic of generations past, an exhibit in a museum. Then again, gays are still cruising—after all, Noah and I met on a dating app. But I stood there and thought of what my mother said, and I put my hand on the small of Noah’s back, grateful that I had found somebody that I could love, someone I could be connected to.
“What are we going to eat tonight?” I asked, accepting for a moment the banality of love that lasts for more than a few brief moments, allowing the falling snow to turn Berlin into a magical fairytale city.
“Anything but kebab,” he said. “I’ve eaten too much kebab.”