Book Excerpt: Sex, Drugs, and Clubs in Mid-’90s Boston

In "Sketchtasy," Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore crafts an evocative snapshot of queer subculture and harrowing addiction.

In the thrilling new novel Sketchtasy (out now from Arsenal Pulp Press), award-winning author Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore dips back into mid-‘90s gay culture with her story of Alexa, a 21-year-old queen trying to find her way (and find herself) in the less than Family-friendly world of Boston, circa 1995. Fast-paced, introspective, thoughtful, and wryly funny, Sketchtasy is one of the stand-out novels of the fall, and we’re thrilled to present this excerpt, in which Alexa explains the sore-thumb nature of being young and queer in Beantown.

FROM “SKETCHTASY”

Every time we go anywhere in East Boston, everyone stares. I mean everyone. At the laundromat it’s mostly the kids who talk and point and laugh, until finally one of them comes up to us and says: Are you from Boston?

These kids all have East Boston accents, almost like Southie but maybe a little more nasal. I’m starting to like these neighborhood accents, even if they often come with awful people. And sure, I could point out to these clueless kids that hello, East Boston is really just a neighborhood in Boston—it’s not like it’s its own town or anything. But instead I just nod my head—sure, we’re from Boston.

This kid looks impressed. Meanwhile, Polly and I are using the hot cycle on the washing machines to make sure we don’t have crabs again, and while we’re waiting we go outside where it’s not quite so sweltering and pretend everyone isn’t watching. Eventually we head home and while we’re walking over the bridge to nowhere someone starts yelling hey, hey, but we’re not going to fall for that one. Then a bottle flies right over our heads, bounces off a wall and smashes on the sidewalk a few feet in front of us.

Maybe if we pretend this isn’t happening, it isn’t happening. Some woman opens her door and I don’t know what I’m looking for, but she closes the door anyway. Then some guy with greasy hair comes out of his house up ahead, rubbing his face like he can’t believe what he’s seeing, and then he starts screaming at us, something about his neighborhood and what the fuck.

Actually it’s our neighborhood too, I say, and he says what, what did you just say? What?

I say we live here, honey.

And he spits on the ground, then rushes back inside and you can hear him going up the stairs in heavy shoes. We keep walking, and just after we pass his house there’s a loud noise behind us like maybe he dropped a brick out his window, or not a brick, something bigger, maybe a cinderblock. It kind of makes me jump but I’m still trying to act like I don’t notice, though Polly’s already turned. Alexa, she says, do you think he was trying to hit us? I’m looking at her and she’s biting her lip and we’re both holding onto the laundry cart and pushing from different sides because otherwise it starts to collapse.

This is ridiculous, I say, but then I notice Polly’s about to cry so I reach over to touch her hand even though I know maybe that’s not the safest thing. But it’s not like anyone hasn’t spotted us spoiling their Italian-American homeland—they’re already angry about the Latinos on the other side of the square but we’re right next to them. So we push the laundry cart the rest of the way just like that, with my clammy hand on top of Polly’s sweaty hand, frosted blue fingernails on top of fuck-me fuchsia. At one point Polly starts to shake like she’s really going to cry, so I stop pushing and look over. Her face is all pink, glassy eyes and just a hint of dark eyeliner contrasting her reddish-blonde curls and freckles, and I notice the light is really beautiful right now.

I need a cocktail, Polly says when we get inside and I say there’s Stoli in the freezer. Usually I don’t drink at home because it’s boring, but I guess if there’s a time for cocktails it’s now. I pour two screwdrivers and Polly snorts a line in her room. Do you want any coke, she says, her voice already different.

No, I say, I have to take the car to the repair shop. Or maybe it’s too late. Are you okay?

I’m okay now, she says, and suddenly I feel so sad that I don’t know how to speak. Polly comes into the dining room and wiggles her tongue, shakes her hips, and puts the mirror on the table with way too much white powder. I snort a line, and oh, yes, let it begin.

I put on “Brighter Days.” Usually I don’t like the vocal diva drama, but this song is different, it’s Cajmere—yes, honey, those clanking beats rotating into the vocal shaking with the booming bass and they call this the new Chicago sound because it’s got that vocal but also it’s hard—Polly, if this is what they’re playing in Chicago, maybe we should move there.

I sit down with the cocktails, and Polly lights a cigarette and looks at me in that way that means we’re here in this mood together, and I say what are we going to do on your birthday?

The same thing we do every day.

Should we go to P-town?

Alexa, we are not going to make it to P-town.

What about Revere Beach?

Revere Beach—that’s on the Blue Line, we can make it to Revere. For sunset.

Oh, that’s perfect—almost feels like my birthday.

You didn’t tell me about your birthday.

I’ll tell you next time.

Alexa, you have a page.

Should I call it?

That’s up to you.

The way this song takes a cheesy narrative about feeling so blue, that’s what the vocal keeps saying, feeling so blue, and then bringing it into something so blue it’s bluer than blue, but what does that make it? This cocktail, this conversation right now, our relationship, I mean we’re not talking about anything, but somehow we’re talking about everything. I don’t want to turn a trick right now.

Reprinted with permission from “Sketchtasy” by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. Published by Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018.