I didn’t know what I wanted so I went mud wrestling. Almost two years ago in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles there was a makeshift ring, a blue tarp laid on the floor covered in a slimy mixture of silica and water. The room buzzed with art queers, who donned sequined mustaches and chain necklaces. Yet I hardly knew anyone there. In fact, the only thing that pulled me into the ring that night was desire itself. Desire to be in my body and for rough touch, and moreover, my desire for Frankie, the night’s slippery host.
I met Frankie in the parking lot of Gracie’s Pizza in East Hollywood after briefly messaging on HER, a pre-Lex dating app for queer women and nonbinary folks. A few minutes after pulling into the lot and saying hi, Frankie spotted their friend down the street and sprinted over to greet them. Their friend had just started T, they said, and they wanted to check up on them. I watched their dyed blonde hair bounce as they ran. I waited next to their RV and talked to their human-faced dog. When they returned, they asked if I wanted to smoke a joint in their van before we ate. Against all previous parental advice, I went in and closed the door behind me.
Although we only hung out a few times that summer, I quickly became infatuated with Frankie. They were someone who lived for the present. After our date they sent me a video they filmed while driving home, of their dog licking one of the popsicles we bought from a corner store. The footage was shaky and blurry. It was weird, reckless even, but I loved it.
I loved that Frankie was 10 years older than me and never seemed to shed this kind of chaotic-verging-on-careless energy that I craved. When I met up with them and their friends one Saturday afternoon in Echo Park, Frankie played the class clown. They danced and struck poses. Their ass hung out of the slits of their jeans. I was struck by how singular they came off to me even as their personality transformed with each turn of their heel. I wondered quietly later to myself if this kind of behavior was only cute on white people? If I too could be so brash, so unapologetic. I knew that wasn’t fully true, but watching them vibe without abandon made me question how many times I stopped myself from this kind of lightness.
It was two weeks before my 24th birthday. I spent my days in a frustrating desk job on the westside. On nights and weekends, I dipped my toes into the chaos of other people: a sculptor who used wind as her medium; a formerly-Tumblr-famous fashion icon who claimed, as they brushed their green mullet away from their eyes, that they had been high for seven years.
“I’m distracting myself from the distraction,” I’d tell my housemates as I snapped the buttons on my one good shirt on my way to my next date. The distraction, I’d explain, sometimes meant texting my college ex-girlfriend but more often meant the grandiose, nebulous things like figuring out how to release myself from my job, my gender, this unending cycle of time.
The night we met, Frankie told me they had hosted queer mud wrestling parties for the last few years in Joshua Tree and other parts of the desert. With DJs, glittery lights, and lots of squishy participants. That summer was the first time they were bringing the brawl to Los Angeles.
When I pictured mud wrestling, my mind conjured images of very heterosexual and porn-like battles. Women in pink bikinis, lubed up and sliding around in inflatable pools. Or worse, an even campier version of the already violent WWE fights.
But when Frankie called for willing participants at the next wrestling match that hot July evening, I didn’t think twice. My hand shot up and I watched myself walk up to the faux gold podium. I peeled off my tank top, wearing only a sports bra and swim trunks I put on at the last minute. “I’ve never seen this much guapo coming out of you,” hollered Frankie to the crowd from the overturned trash can from which they played referee. I donned a bad wrestler name and climbed into the ring.
To be clear: a past version of myself would never have even gotten this far. They would have just texted Frankie for a while and let the conversation trail off to a sputter, or maybe they would have gone on one more date but certainly not this. After returning unexpectedly to Los Angeles from an exciting yet challenging year working at a newspaper in Myanmar, I came home unsure about my next moves. In the absence of self direction, I made people pleasing my personal sport. I wore dresses to work and family events even though they made me wince. I turned down a job offer abroad. I let things happen to me.
Earlier that year in February my then-girlfriend Rachel, broke up with me for the second time as we walked to a Shibori workshop near my house. A few months into dating, she asked me what we were doing — a temperature check. I worked as a tutor at the time and was applying to reporting gigs left and right, in Tulsa, Abu Dhabi, New Delhi. At any minute, I knew I might hop on a plane. “I just want to see where this goes,” I remember saying. I wasn’t prepared to sit still.
When she asked me again on that cold afternoon, “What do you want?” I stumbled. I couldn’t tell her because I didn’t know or maybe because the truth was frightening. The answer was a black hole of wordless, almost embryonic wants. I didn’t blame her for not wanting to stick around while I figured it all out. After we broke up, she asked if I still wanted to go to the workshop. I shrugged, “I guess so.” When else would I learn the art of Japanese textile dyeing? We walked there in silence.
In the days following, I started to panic. What did I really want? Why was I letting a nurturing relationship slip through my fingers? Not only did I not know if I wanted her, I didn’t know how I wanted to be addressed, what I wanted to wear, or how I wanted to be seen. For so long I’d hid behind a red fleece that I wore so religiously throughout college that it was practically proverbial to my being. Now it was starting to feel too snug. Slowly I gave myself permission to search, but I knew that I would have to do it alone. At the recommendation of a friend, I made an appointment with a queer sex and relationship therapist who worked to help me to articulate what it was that I most desired.
In one of our first sessions, she gave me a homework assignment. A lifelong teacher’s pet, I reveled in the opportunity to finish something and finish it well. For a week she had me keep a journal of everything that I wanted, no matter how trivial or lavish, and, if the desire was within reach, she encouraged me to grasp it.
The first day I dutifully took notes of my wants on an hour-by-hour basis. By the end of the week, I was writing long lists and passages, my wants extending into a vision of a future self I could yet imagine. One afternoon, my want was quite mundane: a turkey sandwich. I broke a vegetarian spell and bought a pack of honey smoked meat. Another day, I found a queer barber on Instagram who translated my wild hand gestures and photo archive of hot Black dykes to the cropped fade I most desired. I wanted men’s boxer briefs. I wanted a room with a door.
I wanted non-tangible things too. I wanted to feel free to say no without regret, to place boundaries on relationships that had oozed into the beautiful, yet dangerous undefined ether. I continued the assignment long after that session, compiling a mental list of wants as the months passed by: to spend chunks of time in the desert; to test out and then feel certain about using they/them pronouns, to go on silly and casual dates; to write, to kiss, to be alone, to let myself be chased.
Inspired by my undergrad dance classes, I gave myself a challenge of moving through the city in new and unexpected ways. I’d press my back into the corner of the library stairwell because I could. I’d stand in the middle of the dance floor and let my body be pulled by the rhythm of the crowd. Once I took myself on a date downtown and let whatever shiny objects I spotted lead me all the way up the stairs of a parking garage — where I did not have a car — to gaze at the great cluster of skyscrapers.
My first opponent was tall and slender. She and I were cordial at first, sidling up next to each other as the small, clothed crowd cheered us on. I’m not sure who lunged first but next thing I knew, we were covered in mud as we tried to pin the other down for three seconds. The fight was raw and animalistic, like we were breaking the law.
Despite my opponent’s height, I contorted my body and slid out from her grasp. I advanced to the next round — albeit achy and out of breath — to a more seasoned athlete who came to win. Our thighs slapped against the tarp as we threw each other across the floor. Our eyes and ears were painted in mud like two casts of the human form. At one point she pinned me down so hard that I could feel the air vacate my lungs. I waved an arm at Frankie who called a time out. One of their friends who doubled as the bartender and medic swiveled around with a towel to wipe the sludge out of my eyes. I thanked her, took a breath and jumped back in.
I couldn’t fumble too long with what I wanted to do. One wrong move could result in defeat, injury, or worse — the ending to this reifying brawl. Each moment in the ring I was becoming undone as my body was crushed, the air literally emptied out of me. Or rather I was becoming anew by following the intuitions of my body, ready to be replenished.
That night I went home a loser. My only keepsakes were the two brown bruises on my kneecaps, peeled and bloody from grating against the tarp. Frankie was busy entertaining the other guests and the friends I invited had left early, not inexplicably drawn to the ring like I had been. I rinsed off in a trash can that moonlighted as a bathtub. My body was still covered in mud and somewhere along the evening my chest and back had accumulated scales of confetti and glitter. I was amped up on adrenaline, high-fiving strangers and threatening a rematch.
I shook hands with my second opponent hoping to bum a ride home off her or the art types that lingered in the warehouse. But everyone was headed back to Silver Lake or Echo Park and nobody wanted to make the quick dip into South LA. Frankie offered to give me a ride home in their van, but it wouldn’t be for a few hours. They still had to clean up the oozing pool. I looked around for a familiar face and saw none, but it was alright, I thought, I was nearly invincible. I would have embraced the darkness of downtown and walked home alone if I had to.
Frankie kindly ordered me an Uber. I tried my best not to smudge the seat while the driver set the destination. “It’s not actually mud,” I reassured him, to calm his clear unease, “It’s silica, which is a very common ingredient in face wash.” He peered at me nervously through the rear view mirror while I balanced my body, careful not to put my butt fully on the seat. The downtown skyline faded beneath the freeway exit. The roads were empty for a Saturday night. I looked at the reflection of myself in the mirror, mud in my nostrils, covering my earrings, and slicking back my curls. Summer fireworks exploded in the cloudless night. I looked like a creature reborn from the swamp. I didn’t quite recognize this version of myself, but I liked them and knew that I wanted them to be with me in the morning.