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Sex Before AIDS: This Black Gay Author Takes Us Back to Another Era

photo courtesy Cary Johnson

Cary Alan Johnson's acclaimed new memoir, Desire Lines, recounts his sexual awakening in New York City — just before the dawn of AIDS.

Cary Alan Johnson — an HIV-positive author, activist, Africanist, and founder of several charitable groups — recounts his sexual and personal awakening ifour decades ago in New York City, in the days right before AIDS, in his new memoir Desire Lines. Read a juicy excerpt here:

When it comes to getting screwed, Zogby says you’ve gotta want it. According to Zogby, if you can weather those initial moments of searing intensity (I literally saw stars the first time), then the pain of penetration transforms into a singular and exquisite pleasure. But since that night at the lake with Abdul, I guess I haven’t wanted it that bad. Sure, I think about what it would be like to give that part of me to somebody again. But for now, I guess I’m a top pending further investigation.

Tall, beefy, and brown, I give the people what they want. You’d be surprised how many White dudes fantasize about a Mandingo warrior stepping out of the jungle and into their bedrooms and aren’t afraid to tell you. Most Black guys are looking for tops, too. They want the Hard Rock brother or the B-boy fantasy that no one would suspect of being gay outside of the bedroom. It’s funny how we all seem to crave the man we want to be.

I’m on my lunch break, creeping up a trail in the Central Park Rambles. A frail October sun breaks unevenly through the canopy, dappling the ground with afternoon shadows. Skirting half-fallen branches, I pass a small white sign nailed to a wooden post. Stay on Paths. Avoid Desire Lines. The city agency that manages the park wants to keep us on the straight and narrow. They would prefer to ignore the unofficial tracks that our feet have marked in this ground. But decade after decade, desire has found the shortest distance between two points and created its own set of shortcuts.

I take a sandwich out of my bag and scarf it down in a few careless bites as thick mayonnaise coats my throat. From this height, I can see the park’s thick midsection, Seventy-Third to Seventy-Ninth streets. The green of Sheep Meadow has already faltered, and even the crimson and gold leaves that mark the trees along the Reservoir will soon give way to a stark nakedness. I toss the last corner of my bread into a stand of brown leaves and watch as two hungry squirrels tear it to shreds.

I am not alone. Other men crisscross the paths, disappearing behind bushes and the thick trunks of trees. Most of us have come for sex, some to watch sex, and others just to have a moment away from the harsh gaze of the world.  A reflection of this city—its colors, creeds, and poorly-bridged boroughs—we wander the glade in hungry silence. The only sounds are the crunch of leaves, the faint honking of taxis on Amsterdam Avenue, and the caws of lazy birds readying themselves for the long trip south.

Excerpted from Desire Lines by Cary Alan Johnson (2022, Querelle Press)

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Cary Alan Johnson