Since meeting twelve years ago in Brooklyn, Kyle Thomas Smith and his husband Julius have traveled far and wide together, to over twenty countries and five continents (“still have yet to hit Australia and Antarctica”). They have a two-week trip to Tahiti and the Fiji Islands scheduled for the end of 2018. “It’s where we plan to walk in Gauguin’s footsteps,” Kyle says. “Hopefully before, or during, the trip, I can get Julius to read W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence [fictionally based on Gaugin’s life].”
It’s been a big year for Kyle — the couple moved to San Francisco in the winter and he recently released his memoir Cockloft: Scenes from a Gay Marriage, a collection of witty reflections on travel, creativity, and all the relatable Sedaris-esque day-to-day stuff that accompanies a marriage. It’s a departure from his award-winning young adult novel 85A. Here, he shares a compelling excerpt, and tells us how traveling is one of the best ingredients for the writing life.
Tell us about your new book.
After the publication of 85A, I made many, many attempts at a new novel, but couldn’t seem to write another one that would hold water. Meanwhile, I was writing all these vignettes and essays about my life with Julius and entertaining my friends with them on social media. People I knew kept urging me to put them together as a book but I kept trying to force myself to write another novel. Eventually I got so frustrated that, at the age of 41, I decided to go to grad school for an MFA, thinking it would finally get me on to a new novel. Instead, it kept reminding me that all the writing that I thought was marginalia — the stories and scenes from my life with Julius — had been the meat of the matter the whole time. I pulled them together into a book. The two books couldn’t be more dissimilar but they were equally organic.
How does travel play a role in your writing?
Well, it’s widened my frame of reference exponentially. I’m not sure what the neuroscience is behind travel, but I always come away from the experience with a better sense that my own little microcosm doesn’t amount to a tiny speck on the map. When I was a young writer, it was just me and the cafes I’d write in and I used to like to think of myself back then as oh-so worldly but, when I started venturing out of my comfort zone, I started to see that I’d been stuck in a rut and needed to take in the larger world. And it turns out there’s a whole world out there! Who knew!
Can you set up this excerpt for us?
This is from the only long essay in the book. It’s about how Julius and I went to Amsterdam to be someplace progressive and tolerant during the run-up to our 2016 election. On our first night, we decided to indulge at one of the city’s “coffee shops” but freaked out when we found ourselves hallucinating with no idea how to get back to our Airbnb. As we bumbled through the Red Light district, I was forced to confront the encoding of my early Catholic upbringing and how it conflicts with my life today as a gay man who left the Church long ago.
“Oudeschans: An Ex-Altar Boy Hashes It Out with God on the Edge of the Red Light District”
If I were going to have any peace during my time off that year, I would have to go someplace tolerant, enlightened, and far away from home. I’d been to Europe countless times but had never made an effort to go to Amsterdam. It had a reputation for being one big fleshpot and, what with Saturn’s stranglehold over my every impulse, I had to face that I’m just not that much of a hedonist. Yet more and more I’d also been hearing about and reading up on how Amsterdam isn’t the junkie juggernaut that so many people make it out to be.
The Dutch are simply practical in ways that would make Middle American puritans clutch their pearls and stockpile their front-hall closets with assault rifles. Point all the guns you want at people, they’re still going to visit prostitutes. You might as well legalize it, regulate it, tax it and generate revenue from it for improved infrastructure and the common good. People are going to do soft drugs so you might as well legalize them, regulate them, tax them and generate revenue from them so people are less inclined to hit the harder stuff on the black market. Teenagers are going to have sex so you might as well give them comprehensive sex ed and teach them how to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease. Illnesses can reach such advanced and incurable stages that, if we were to see our beloved animal companions in the throes of them, we’d say it’s cruel to keep them going—so why insist that people experience every torturous moment of a terminal illness with only the aid of opioids? Why not offer them the option, if they’re still of sound mind, of having a peaceful and medically induced end if they so choose? As a result of all these practical reforms, sex workers are licensed and protected from pimps, the government is far better able to detect and crack down on human trafficking, people can die with dignity and there is far less drug abuse and far lower teen pregnancy rates per capita in the Netherlands than in the United States.
My Dutch friend Victor and I discuss this subject ad nauseum over email. A few months before our trip, I happened to make friends with Victor on a meditation app called Insight Timer. After a period of discussing our meditation practices with each other on the app, we soon began to write each other long and winding emails in which we’d compare and contrast our cultures. I’d bemoan the Christian right and he’d remind me that I live in New York City, I have sanctuary. He’d tell me that the Netherlands has a Bible belt too and that Geert Wilder’s far-right party is constantly stoking hatred of Muslims. At the same time, while it’s true that Amsterdam has long prided itself on its openness and tolerance, it is almost impossible to be openly gay in some of its more conservative Muslim communities. He said I’d have to live there to know that, for all its upsides, Holland is not a failsafe safe-space for liberalism nor is it a holiday from the dark side of human nature.
Julius and I made plans to meet Victor in person on the second day of our trip but we still had this first day to get through, and it’s our first day that is the subject of this essay.
Far from being one of the Cities of the Plain, I found that Amsterdam is a city of adorable sloping metal bridges lined with old-fashioned gas lamps. It’s a city of tree-lined, cobblestone streets, where men are not ashamed to ride bicycles with wicker baskets and bells on their handlebars. Prismatic tulip gardens bloom in profusion in Amsterdam’s parks and on its parkways. Boats sail through rings of canals, built in the seventeenth-century, while other boats sit docked on the side, uncovered and unmolested even in a city of nearly one million people. Young people drink their lagers with leisure at the outdoor cafes instead of slyly looking around and pounding them back before they can get caught, since what’s the point of doing that when they’ve already reached the drinking age?
Julius and I were staying in an Airbnb on the second floor of a slim, four-story townhouse with a gabled roof on Oudeschans, right across the canal from the red-light district. That’s another practicality the Dutch have down. When it was first starting out as a major city, Amsterdam’s architects knew to design narrow houses since, in those days, property taxes were based on the building’s width.
We rented an efficiency apartment made of plain wooden floors, plain wooden walls and a white-wooden lean-to. A plain wooden wardrobe stood next to our queen-sized Ikea bed, which was covered in a dove-white duvet. A plain wooden desk with a plain wooden chair stood across from the foot of the bed, where I could do my writing every morning. The landlord had placed a No Smoking sign on top of the full-length black TV by the black-bricked fireplace. We had what we needed in the apartment, plain and simple.
Julius would be pulling out all the stops for dinner, though. He’d booked us a table for two at Ciel Bleu, a two-star Michelin restaurant clear across town on the 23rd Floor of the Okura Hotel. It was an alarming contrast to the coffeshops we passed, where the denizens we spied through the windows sat at grungy tables letting their hair fall in their faces as they pulled long drags off roaring reefers, as well as to a certain red-lit vestibule we passed in the red-light district where a raven-haired woman in an open blouse stood in the window rolling her breasts in opposite directions with the speed of a batter-mixer on full blast. Our table by the window at Ciel Bleu had panoramic views of the city and, more close-up, of blocks and blocks of courtyard apartment buildings from the 1920s and ’30s that were built in the expressionist style of The Amsterdam School, a movement that provided housing for working-class families in buildings whose facades are decorated with stained-glass windows, wrought ironwork and ornamental masonry lush with cornices and medallions.
There were several courses to this dinner that included Japanese Wagyu, Langoustine drenched in combava (which I later learned is froufrou for lime) and Baeri caviar. Though there were wine pairings galore, we still managed to wash it all down with a bottle of Bollinger champagne. Civilized and fabulous though the dining experience was, I couldn’t help but think that Ciel Bleu isn’t where the action is in Amsterdam. It’s impossible to pull off an edgy act in such a five-star setting so instead I went full Dimitri Karamazov when I leaned in to psst-whisper, “We should smoke weed tonight.” Julius took a sip of Bollinger and said, “We don’t smoke weed. We smoke hash.”
A year or so before we met, Julius had gone to Marrakesh where he’d smoked hashish for the first time. It was something he had arranged through the hotel’s concierge. A male attendant, wearing a traditional white djellaba, had accompanied Julius to a roomful of ornately stitched throw pillows, where he prepared and lit a pipe that Julius held to his lips for several hits. The attendant, who had stayed sober and alert throughout the time that Julius smoked, promptly accompanied Julius back to his hotel room and turned out all the lights once Julius was tucked away in bed. It was all very Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. Under the spell of the hashish, Julius hallucinated that he was floating through space inside a genie bottle full of throw pillows and shirtless, beefcake sultans in red turbans. All in all, he remembered it as a most relaxing experience.
We stayed for dessert at Ciel Bleu, ordering the chocolate tray, but I didn’t pick from it much since I wanted to get a move on to the coffee shops. Saturn was seizing up on me hard, of course, but I told myself I’d lived too long under his yoke. Sure, I’d tried pot a few times in college but it made me feel sleepy and depressed every time, not to mention that, as a former altar boy, the times I’d done it had filled me with the terror that I’d walked through the doorway into a no-tell motel of decadence and devastation from whence there was no return. There was a whole world of people out there, though, who weren’t so uptight about these things and I wanted to be one of them. Now was the time to declare my freedom from Saturn, Amsterdam-style.
By the time we settled the bill at Ciel Bleu, we’d Googled “Best Coffeeshops for Hashish in Amsterdam.” TimeOut recommended Greenhouse, which is next door to the Grand Hotel. It said Greenhouse had won the prestigious Cannabis Cup over 30 times. Julius said, with that kind of reputation, “It must sell a well-regulated product.” I told him that many people had warned me that this is not the kind of no-additives marijuana that used to go around in the sixties and seventies. In Amsterdam, they jack up the THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the mind-altering agent in both hashish and marijuana. I’d been warned that one joint would be the equivalent of ten.
Julius said, “We’ll be fine.” I set the GPS on my phone for Greenhouse and we decamped to suck the marrow out of the Dutch capital.
To learn more or to purchase Cockloft: Scenes from a Gay Marriage visit cockloftmemoir.com
Cockloft: Scenes from a Gay Marriage
Kyle Thomas Smith
This material may be protected by copyright.