In the hour since I had been led to the changing room with the other contestants, the bar had changed. What was once nearly empty, lit by the natural light of afternoon filtering through the door, was now sweltering, full of men, and dimly lit—quintessential Rockbar. The six contestants were brought to the far corner of the bar, where we waited for the host, Candy Samples, drag queen and Queen of the Bears, to summon us. Even with the industrial-sized fan set up to cool us, I felt my fleece onesie cling to the sticky slick of my body.
“And our first contestant, Matthew Mastricova!”
Rockbar is not luxurious, but it charges a cover: five dollars after 9:00 p.m. Five dollars to inhabit the single dimly lit room where the bar spans half its length, New York’s self-proclaimed preeminent bear bar. On one end, two bathrooms, a clothes check, and a few arcade games and a photo booth. On the other, a small stage opens onto a dance floor and the entrance to a gated smoking area.
On its busiest nights, traversing the bar feels infinite. If other bars feel vast because of their expanse and multiple levels, Rockbar’s enormity arises from its smallness, the discovery of space between groups of large men. The sensation of hands laying on your body just roughly enough to imprint desire. I have spent many nights elsewhere, with plans to hit other bars or concerts or parties, only to finish my night outside Rockbar with the smokers as that nondescript blend of Top 40 and dance remixes blares from within. If I had not claimed this bar as a home by the time I had signed up for the Mr. Rockbear contest, it had at least claimed me.
My boyfriend, Noah, met Mr. Rockbear 2016 on Growlr, the same app we had met on. Mr. Rockbear 2016 was a drag queen, and he hosted a weekly show and RuPaul’s Drag Race viewings. I hadn’t met him in person, but I knew his photo (a little taller and rounder—and much smoother—than me, but otherwise molded from the same body shape). He talked with Noah frequently. And it was through his Facebook that Noah found the announcement: Contestants were needed. Soon Mr. Rockbear 2017 would be sashed.
“You should try out,” Noah told me. “I mean, look at you; they’d love you. And you know I’d be the best stage mom.”
They, meaning the patrons of Rockbar. They, meaning the judges who would decide the face of Rockbar for the next year. I couldn’t deny that, on the surface, I was an archetypal pre-Daddy Bear: apple-built and hirsute, naturally fit to a leather cap and harness. I should have been able to say yes, but I imagined competing against people like Noah, hot and witty and charismatic and at ease around others, who didn’t feel their voices curdle when they approached a stranger. Who, even if they did not feel it, projected a lived-in confidence.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll think about it.”
As the deadline drew closer, Noah kept trying to convince me. “You’re gorgeous,” he would say.
Noah, more than anyone, knows how fiercely I resent my body, how many times I’ve pulled on a shirt and felt the fibers stretch against the bulging expanse of my stomach. He has seen me spend twenty minutes taking selfies, shifting my pose and clothes, the angle of the shot, because I’m afraid of how my face looks bloated, my chin has tripled, or because I sense a dissonance between beauty and my body that is utterly unqualifiable. All I want to say is, “That’s not the person I think I am.”
Yet sometimes, after enough cajoling, I believe him. And I did that time; at the least, I knew I would not be the ugliest person competing. How many times had a stranger approached me at the bar, slid a hand over my stomach or ass on a busy night? Rockbar was a place where I felt desired, where the doorman knew my name, where I was already comfortable stripping down to my underwear surrounded by strangers. I wanted to compete in part because I wanted to finally be free from the anxiety of looking in a mirror and wondering if I would be seen as attractive, or seen at all.
I tested the water with gay friends: I’m thinking of doing a pageant. What do you think? Each time, they echoed Noah’s excitement. I finally relented and told Noah I would apply.
I had to email the current Mr. Rockbear and state my case: Why did I deserve to compete for the title of Mr. Rockbear 2017? I told him the truth: Rockbar was a space that made loving myself easy (sometimes), where I felt (more) comfortable in the confines of my body. Where I met friends (if rarely) who understood the anxiety of fitting large masses into small spaces. Where I could feel fat and gay and pretty and not be ashamed, and I wanted other people, people who were overlooked by typical queer narratives (i.e., children, elders, incarcerated individuals), to know that feeling too.
The Mr. Rockbear contest consisted of three rounds: presentation (who are you?), bear wear (why should you win?), and fetish wear (can you be creative and sexy?). Each round was centered on a theme, and required its own outfit and sound bite. Questions for the first two rounds would be provided ahead of time; the third would be a surprise and “a little bit more fun.”
In the weeks leading up to the competition, Noah and I developed my outfits (which were all themed, and covered less of my body with each progressing round) and rehearsed my answers. We made lists of the stores we needed to go to, the clothes and makeup I needed to buy. I had to remind myself, “You are doing this for you. You are doing this for you. You are doing this for you,” even though the question of whether I’d look good, if people would think that I looked good, continued to lurk.
I was instructed to arrive mid-afternoon on the day of the competition. Rockbar was almost empty. While I waited to be called for the pre-contest meeting, I scanned the room for the other five competitors.
We were all led to a door behind the bar and down to a spartan storage/lounge area where the drag queens changed. There were two well-worn couches and a makeup area: a wall-length mirror with tables and chairs beneath it. As we changed into our first outfits, we talked. There was a genuine camaraderie, even though we knew that only one person could win. One guy, whose outfits throughout the night were campy and costumey and loud, had competed the previous year. Another danced at the bar; he was soft-spoken and kind and wanted to win, wanted to be seen as more than just a body on a stage collecting dollar tips. He had ordered a custom outfit, a milkman’s uniform complete with glass bottles of milk, for the final round.
Another man told us of a contest he had entered at a different bar—he had been the only contestant, so the judges called for volunteers from the audience to compete. The volunteers were all athletic white boys. The winner was one of those white boys. The rest of those white boys were all given awards of some kind. The man I was competing against, black and fat and older, was awarded nothing. Here, at least, he would be taken seriously.
As we took our shirts off, the stories of our stomachs, stretch marks and surgery scars, were laid bare. For so much of my life I had felt alienated by my heft, my overhang and limbs that quivered with every step. When we were called up for the first round of the competition, I felt surrounded by people who understood me.
As I took the stage, I saw the crowd for the first time: a sea of dimly lit faces, most of them strange. A constellation of friendly faces. Noah. I couldn’t remember the last time I was in front of such a large group of people. Candy had been hosting these competitions for years and knew how to keep the event moving. With warm smiles and witty banter, they created a space where competition felt less like performance than bar chatter. At their behest, I showed off my first outfit to the judges, a sloth onesie with attached hood and claws, and then introduced myself. I spoke slowly, trying to fit as much of my ideal self into each syllable as I could: genial, relaxed, funny.
“My name is Matthew Mastricova, and, like this sloth onesie I’m wearing, I am fuzzy, slow, love naps, and am usually more naked than not. Thank you for this opportunity, and I look forward to showing you more.”
As I returned to stand with the other contestants, they complimented my introduction, even though they’d most likely heard next to none of it between the industrial fan next to us and the noisy crowd in front of us. Even seeing the stage was a challenge, obscured by distance, the crowd, and a weight-bearing beam directly in our sightline. Regardless, we all tried to pay attention. We complimented each other after each turn. The least we could do was pay each other the attention we sought.
After the first round, we rushed downstairs to change into our bear-wear outfits. The amiable chatter had fallen away almost entirely. There was a sense of urgency as we switched in and out of underwear and harnesses and shirts and kilts. We had all seen the crowd, the judges, the host; one person would win, and that reality was inescapable.
For my second outfit, I paid homage to Rockbar’s previous incarnation, the Dugout. A vintage Chicago Cubs tee altered to a sleeveless crop top. Leather ball cap. Jockstrap. Athletic socks pulled up to the knee. Glitter spread like blackout. As I showed off my outfit and turned away from the judges, I heard something hit the stage. I turned around, and saw a lacy folding fan—one of the judge’s. I picked it up and handed it to Candy.
They looked at me and said, “Let’s try this again,” and dropped it. All I could think of were the directions, so I bent down and picked it up again. It was only when they joked about me being a puritan that I realized what the fan meant. Later, Noah would tell me that he had screamed, “Show your ass!” but I didn’t hear him. “If you could bring any of the judges home tonight, who would it be?” Candy asked me.
I froze. I was expecting a question about the significance of Rockbar or what I’d do as a winner. I am already slow in conversation; I spend time with each word on my tongue until it’s half-melted. I had known that the “fun” question would be difficult for me, but I had been expecting it in the next round. Now, encountering it in the wrong place, I only cared about survival. Answer the question, I thought. Look at the judges, make your choice, vocalize your choice, get off the stage before they kick you off .
“Umm . . . I’d have to say Mr. Rockbear 2016.”
“Is that your final answer?”
“Yes, that’s my final answer.”
For the rest of the round I burned with embarrassment, thinking of all the ways I could have been sultrier, more detailed, wittier, better. I had been given two minutes to think and formulate and express, to take as much space as I needed to be heard and known, and instead I had curled into the smallest possible expression of who I was.
Third look: Black-and-white jockstrap with a leather harness. Black faux-leather boots, ankle-high. Pale pink laces to match the Jigglypuff snapback.
“In your opinion, what impact does Rockbar have in the New York bear community, and if you are sashed, how would you add to it?”
I took a second to breathe, to once again collect my thoughts. “Rockbar is a space that champions inclusion. This is the place where I learned to love my body,” I said.
I had not expected the audience to cheer, but they did, and I basked in it. It was a half-truth, perhaps, but in that moment it felt like more. Claiming that feeling, that resounding support and agreement, made me feel like it could someday become the truth.
“I wouldn’t be up here, dressed like this, if it weren’t for this bar,” I went on. “And as Mr. Rockbear 2017, I would want to work with organizations that help underserved queer people, people who are so often forgotten or overlooked.”
Later, as I waited in the back with the other contestants, Noah came to find me. He hugged me even though I was drenched in sweat. “You were so great,” he said. “Whether you win or lose, I am so proud of you.” He stayed with me until the end of the contest, his hand in mine as we waited for the winner and runner-up to be announced.
I did not win. I was not the runner-up, either.
As they called all the contestants to the stage to take a picture with the judges and the host, I felt hollow inside. I had imagined not winning would be a relief; that I would have no obligations and would not have to pretend to be social every weekend. The winner, who had seemed to embody a hyper-dominant masculinity in his answers and outfits, and the runner-up, the man who had competed last year, were far more suited to victory—their answers were brash and confident, loud enough that I was able to hear them over the noise.
I had gotten onstage bare-assed and answered my questions and had a fan thrown at me and it all felt good. But good was not enough. That night I had sat in the dressing room and talked with strangers and felt like I belonged; felt that I was capable of inhabiting space without regret. I could have represented that place I loved, could have worn the sash and shown up to events and maybe even competed in other, bigger contests. I could have chatted with more people, smiled and felt confident and wanted. I could have thrown open the doors, reached out to lonely, fat queers and told them that this could be a place like home.
I still consider Rockbar my favorite bar, the place where I feel most comfortable inhabiting space, but it isn’t a true home. It’s a place where men who look like me meet and drink and flirt and cruise. I can survey the dimly lit bar late on a Saturday night and see men in various states of undress and feel, to some degree, understood. Accepted. Desired.
But my anxieties remain my own. My body remains my own. I am still trying to architect a home in this constellation of muscle and water and fat. Winning would not have changed how I look or how I feel about how I look. It would not have healed my anxiety or taught me to be kinder to myself. I am getting there, though, on my own.
A week before the competition, Noah and I went to Leatherman, a fetish shop on Christopher Street, to buy a few accessories. There was a mesh hoodie there, the kind I’ve always imagined boxers wear, that I desperately wanted to buy. The last time we went, I had tried it on, and even though Noah told me I looked great, all I could see was fat. All bulge, no definition.
This time I saw it and felt compelled to try again. This time, alone in the changing room, I still saw my weight, all 260 pounds. I saw the curves of my love handles and my sagging chest, yes, but also the muscles in my shoulders, the dense field of my stomach. My bare arms. My face.
I stepped out and showed Noah. He said I was gorgeous. He took a photo of me, and this time I didn’t need fifteen different angles or outfits or faces to believe him.