Porn

Having some time to myself one evening, I settle down in front of my computer with a box of tissue for a little “Lance alone” time.  I pull up my favorite website and click on a link for amateur submissions to see what’s new.

The site allows people to upload their own videos for the viewing pleasure of others.  I click on an intriguing video and start watching.  It starts off promising.  A man in a black, leather harness is sprawled on his back on a brown, leather ottoman.  Legs akimbo.  Jock-strapped.  A black mask over his face with a zipper where his mouth should be.

He has a lithe, sexy body, and I’m excited by the expectation of what’s about to happen. As I watch the man brandish a formidable dildo and proceed to insert it into his anus, I think to myself, “My friend John has an ottoman like that.”

I lean forward in my chair, squinting.  Come to think of it, John also has a bearskin rug just like the one in the video.  The dildo is now plunging deeply into the man’s gaping hole, and he’s writhing and moaning, and I realize in horror that it is my friend John.

Weireded out, I close the video immediately.  Okay.  Fine.  I watch the entire thing out of morbid curiosity.   Twice.  When it ends, I wonder how I’ll be able to sit down at brunch with him without turning crimson and avoiding eye contact.   When he does my taxes for me next year, how can I go over my receipts without wondering, is he wearing a butt plug right now?

Would that John were the first of my friends that I’d stumbled upon in this manner.  Alas, he is not.  In my surfing, I’ve come across pictures of other friends naked, or engaged in various acts of debauchery.  I’ve seen men I recognize from the gym.  From work.  At least two baristas from the coffee shop I frequent.  Porn is ubiquitous, and in an age of webcams, fast internet, and cellphones, I guess such unwanted exposure is inevitable.

Walking down the streets of the city, explicit images advertising bands, and clubs, and DJs are plastered to every telephone pole and building.  Clubs are wallpapered with pornography, and totally nude strippers shake their money makers at bored patrons who have already seen it all.  Porn was exciting because it was fantasy.  It existed largely in the imagination.  But now porn is finding its way into reality.  Diluted.  Diminished.  Nothing seems taboo.

During a recent, round of passionate, hot, sweaty monkey sex with my main squeeze, we were going at it when he suddenly punched my pecs with his fists, the way we’d seen people in porn do it.  We both realized that he was imitating pornography, and the absurdity of it made us giggle.

But I wonder, has all of this availability of porn had a negative effect on us?  Is there some need to live up to the skill and measurements of the men on the screen?  Will it become impossible to divorce fantasy from reality, or are they now completely intertwined?  In the age of the internet, does something exist if it isn’t documented on the web for all to see?

In reality, sex is messy, and frequently awkward.  But also visceral in a way that fantasy can never be.  I for one am content to let the fantasy remain a fantasy, and embrace reality, not despite its flaws, but because of them.  Because the unexpectedness of reality is what makes it exciting.

“What do you want to do tonight?”  I ask when he comes over.

“Let’s play with your video camera.”  He suggests.

I think about fantasy.  Reality.  Role playing.  Fetishes.  The exploitive nature of images. The insecurities of measuring up to the genetically gifted men who daily grace my computer screen.  I see his beautiful, expectant face, and say, “Well, maybe just for our own personal viewing pleasure.”

Reader

 Carlos works across the street from Powell’s books, so I often find myself waiting there for him to get off, a habit that is destined to bankrupt me.  I sit at the bar in front of the windows facing the street and pretend to read. (Sometimes even actually reading).  Sipping absently from my cherry, Italian soda and people watching.

An older black man with a serious expression brings armloads of books from the romance section and takes great care lining them up on a table.  He is here nearly every time that I am and every time he can be found carefully lining up his finds before going back to the stacks to scavenge some more.

Portland is a place where people cultivate their eccentricities.

Earlier, a homeless man smelling strongly of urine stopped me on the street and started babbling at me in a string of sounds that didn’t quite evolve into actual words.   The urgency of his expression and the way he implored with his hands gave me pause as I struggled to understand him.  I felt badly, but all I could do was helplessly shake my head and say, “I’m sorry.”  For what, I’m not quite sure.  For being unable to communicate.  For being unable to help.  For being white, and middle classed, and spoiled.  I politely disengaged and fled to the comforting refuge of the bookstore.

Inside I’m immediately put at ease.   In my element.  I love everything about books.  I love the comfortable heft of one in my hand.  The feel of pages against my skin.  I love the smell of them.  But mostly I love words.  Stories.  The worlds and adventures that they contain.

I credit my parents for nurturing this love of the written word.  Reading is the only thing that the three of us had in common.  After dinner in the evenings, my mom would sit at the kitchen table with a Diet Pepsi, reading some romance novel.  Square jawed men in puffy shirts with arms around the waist of some Victorian woman who is all soft curls and heaving bosom.  My dad would be sitting in his bed with a battered Louis Lamour western.  And I’d curl up in my bedroom with my headphones on and some sci-fi epic in front of me.

Even though we were all in different rooms of the house, I always felt really connected to them on those evenings when we were all reading.

The first book I ever read (that wasn’t a picture book) was Charlotte’s Web.  Having raised a pig of my own, I was especially touched (although Jo Jo’s fate was pretty grisly compared to that of Wilbur’s.)  The first book I ever loved was The Hero and the Crown.  I’ve read this book so many times since I was a kid that I can recite whole pages of it from memory.  Since then there have been countless books that made me laugh.  Those that made me sob like a baby.  Books have transformed and transported me to universes of exploding creativity, and I will never be the same.

For Christmas last year, Carlos got me a Kindle.  I smiled politely and pretended to love it, inwardly cringing because it would take away the tactile experience you get from a “real” book.  After downloading my first e-book, a non-fiction work about quantum physics, I completely changed my tune.  An e-reader can hold thousands of books at once.  Because I usually read 3 or 4 books at a time, having the Kindle is like being able to take my entire bookshelf with me everywhere I go.  It has since come to rival my iPhone as my most cherished possession.

In an age of nano-second attention spans, stumbling across another reader is like finding some lost member of a dying tribe.  I see you in familiar places.  Riding in buses.  Sitting in coffee shops.  Alone in a cafe.  Browsing through bookstores.  We may read different genres, but we understand each other.  Life would seem so dull, so empty without all the stories and the words out there, waiting to be tasted and experienced.

What are you reading?

Alien

“We’re all just made of stardust!”  My friend Betsy proclaims over brunch, like she’s the first person to have ever reached this conclusion.  She sits back from her seasonal fruit and granola plate, smiling with smug triumph beneath the yellow umbrella of the cafe outside.

So I stab her in the face with a fork.

I can do this because I just made Betsy up so that I could have someone say a line in my blog about stardust.  Because I don’t have any girlfriends a la Sex and the City that I have brunch with.

In the city I hardly ever see any stars anyway.  In the city, the bright lights of jagged toothed skyscrapers, of cars and street lamps change the sky to an empty, dull purple sheet at night.  Hazed over by clouds, pollution, and car exhaust.  Skimmed by airplanes and occasionally a helicopter search light, scanning the streets for some fugitive.

I always find myself looking up.  Searching.

I had my first existential crisis at the age of 6.  My mom took me to get a haircut, and for the first time, the hairdresser asked me how I wanted it cut.  Prior to this point she’d always just asked my mother.  Without missing a beat, I told her, “I want half of it shaved and the other half dyed black.”  The elderly hairdresser turned to my mom and said, “Is he joking?”  My mom said, “Yes.  Just give him the usual.”  So I got the same bowl cut, and we drove home in silence, until my mom finally asked, as we turned into our driveway, “Where did you come from?”

I didn’t know, but had often wondered this same thing.  Surrounded by the cowboy boots, the county fairs and 4-H meetings,  the blue ribbon show pigs, and chicken fried everything of my youth, I couldn’t help but wonder how these people could spawn me.  I looked to the heavens and prayed for an alien abduction.  Every time I saw the night sky I half expected the mother ship to beam me up and reunite me with my true people.

I’d like to say that adulthood has given me this greater sense of connection to my fellow man.  As a grown up living in Los Angeles, where the stars were all on movie screens, walking down red carpets, eating in restaurants and shopping at my local grocery,  where everyone had year round tans and there were plastic surgery coupons in the weekly paper.  I still found myself wondering where I’d come from and how I’d gotten there.

I was on a date with an entertainment lawyer in West Hollywood.  We were standing outside beneath the Dr. Seuss palm trees that lined the boulevard.  I asked him what the last book was that he read, and he looked back and said, “You don’t belong in L.A.”

Then we made out in an alley behind some bar and I never heard from him again.

Last night in Portland Carlos and I were waiting for the late night bus to take us back to his apartment.  A toothless woman wearing tie dye and polka dots came up to me and asked if she could use my phone.  I say, “No.”  Because I value my phone more than I value not seeming like a dick, and she walks away and borrows a phone from some rotund teenager who is twirling two wrenches tied to the ends of shoelaces.  They get on the bus with us.  The bus where everyone smells like cheese and has loud, public conversations with their parole officers.

Carlos turns to me and says, “Who are these people?”

I turn to him and say, “I know, right?”  The bus is the mothership that takes us home.  I can’t speak for the rest of the world.  The senselessness of racism, wars, poverty and inequality.  The absurdity of life.  But sometimes when I look into his eyes I see it.  Stardust.

Sushi

“What are you having for dinner tonight?”  My mom asks, since dinner, the weather and work are the three topics of conversation we limit ourselves to in our thrice weekly conversations.

“I don’t know.”  I say.  “Sushi maybe?”

“Raw fish?”  The disgust in her voice is palpable.

“It’s not all raw fish.”  I tell her.  “But I’ll probably eat some raw tuna.”

“Sounds…interesting.”  She says, which is probably the most neutral thing I’ve ever heard her say.

At this point she is no longer surprised by my culinary adventurousness.  But it is a far cry from the person I was when I lived with her.  As a child my cardinal rule of eating was that I wouldn’t touch anything that was:  a.) green, b.) lived in water, or c.) looked like a monster.  Sushi can be comprised of all of these elements, so it’s just a testament to how much my palette has changed as an adult.

The first time I had sushi, I was 19 and had never been out of the state of Texas.  Going to the sushi place was the most sophisticated thing I’d ever done until that point.  Prior to this experience, the most exotic thing I’d eaten was Hamburger Helper lasagna.   But I was in college and determined to put the farm boy behind me, and become the cultured, worldly young man I’d always hoped to be.

To that end, I found myself in a Japanese restaurant in College Station, Texas, completely intimidated.  I didn’t know what to order, so I opted for the safest choice on the menu.  California rolls.  When they arrived, sliced neatly on my plate with some pickled ginger and wasabi, I was relieved.  Sure, it looked weird.  But it didn’t look too scary.

I’ve never liked anything that tasted fishy, so the first thing I did was drown the sushi in soy sauce.  Having never encountered wasabi before, I assumed from the color and texture that it was somewhere in the guacamole family.  So I took my California roll and slathered it with a heaping pile of wasabi.  I took one bite, and felt this painfully spicy jolt shoot up through my nose into my eyes.  It was years before I touched sushi again.

In the intervening years I’d made tentative stabs at sushi again.  Since I was a vegetarian for years, I was limited to vegetable or tofu rolls.  This dabbling in the genre would have probably remained the extent of my commitment if it weren’t for Carlos.  When he confided early on in our relationship that he found sushi to be an aphrodisiac, I decided it was time for me to step things up a bit.

For lunch we go to a sushi-go-round called Sushi Land, like Candyland’s skinny, grown up cousin.  There’s something thrilling about watching your food circle around you on a conveyor belt, and picking things out to give them a try.  I started out simply with spicy tuna rolls, and avocado rolls.  But before I knew it, I found myself branching out into seared salmon and raw tuna.

I finally feel like I’m ready to try Carlos’s favorite, sashimi.   As a kid I was only interested in food that tasted good.  Now when I eat things like pizza, burgers or milkshakes, I feel miserable later.  But when I eat sushi, I feel awesome later.  So, from now on, the grown up me wants to eat things that make me feel good afterward.  Not guilty, or bloated.  Even if they’re green, swim, or look like monsters.  Plus the aphrodisiac aspect doesn’t hurt.

Me, Myself, I

At work, my boss instant messages me to ask if I need anything from her. We haven’t chatted in a while.

I respond, “No!  I’m doing great!  Thanks!”

At work I punctuate every statement with exclamation points.  I’m always excited, and positive, and ready to please.   As far as my boss and co-workers are aware, at any rate.  On some level this feels completely false, and phony, because, let’s face it, I’m anything but positive.  My general perception is that there isn’t a single problem in the world that couldn’t be solved by the zombie apocalypse.

At the same time, having lost jobs in the past for maybe being too honest, and being afraid of unemployment and the inevitable homelessness and starvation that comes along with that, I’ve trained myself to never rock the boat.  To end text messages with smiley faced emoticons.

Mostly I spend the day online, reading articles on Reddit about why the world is doomed, and chatting with my ex-boyfriends who seem to be the only people I speak to on a regular basis, aside from my current amour, and of course my mom.

“Have you told your mother that you’re moving to NYC?”  Bryan asks.

“It hasn’t really come up yet.”  I tell him.   “Anyway it’s months away, so there’s plenty of time.”

“Don’t let it be another Los Angeles.”  He warns.  When I moved to L. A. I put off telling my family about it until a week before I left.  My mom was devastated and said, “I’ll never see you again!”  (Where do you think I got my drama queen tendencies?)  And every time I phoned home, which was a scheduled three times a week event, she’d be convinced that any day I’d be done in by an earthquake, riot, or gang related murder.

Instead, when she and I have our Sunday conversation, she asks if anything new is going on with me, I say, “No.  Same as always.”

She says, “You’re more boring than I am.”

I do not disagree, but inside I’m certain that if she knew of even a fraction of my drunken debauchery, awkward sex-capades, or evil schemes, she’d keel over immediately due to a truth induced aneurysm.  Her propensity for overreaction means that I edit out the bulk of my life when I speak to her, so I feel that she has no idea who I really am.

I feel like I compartmentalize myself so much that I’m at least three different people on any given day. The perky, people pleaser I am at work.  The private, subdued person I am around my parents.  And the snarky, zombie obsessed,  and…well….mostly just snarky person I am around my friends.

I never really thought about this until Carlos’s parents came to visit.  Seeing him interact with his family was a real eye opener.  He is the same person around them as he is around me.   Which is to say, slightly obnoxious, incredibly sharp witted, and sickeningly adorable.  He’s even this way at work (though ever so slightly more professional).  He’s all Carlos all the time.   I love this about him.  But I can’t help but wonder what it would take for me to reconcile the disparate parts of myself into one, slightly warped, whole?

As I type this, he sends me a text that says, “Much love from Brooklyn.”  He’s vacationing on the east coast, and checking out the city.  This sends me into a daydream.  The two of us living in an apartment in Manhattan.  Him going to school, and me making a living as a novelist.  A future where I wouldn’t have to trisect myself into pieces to interact with those around me.  The liberation that would come from really letting myself be…myself.  But then I surrender the fantasy and turn my thoughts instead to the zombie outbreak that will lead to my inevitable world domination.

Commitment

“My dad wants chicken and waffles.”  He texts me.  “What was that place we went to on your birthday?”  I text him back, “The Sunshine Tavern.”  He responds with a texted kiss.  Says, “Thanks bebe.”

I seem to have become one half of one of those disgustingly happy couples I’d see in restaurants while sitting alone, pretending to read, silently shooting blasts of imaginary acid at their smug, lovey dovey faces.  Now I’m fully immersed in the complacency of couplehood.  Making future plans a year in advance.  Ending text messages with emoticons.  Sometimes I don’t even recognize the person I’ve become.

On Thursday I met his parents.  His boisterous, Latino father, and blonde, German mother.  They drove up from California to see him, his little brother in tow.  When we got to their hotel room, they hugged me.  His father offered me a beer.  I sat stiffly on the loveseat with my hands folded in my lap, quietly bewildered.  They are warm and genuine despite my complete inability to make small talk.  When Carlos went to the bathroom and I was left alone with them, I ran through a thousand possible things to say, but ended up asking them if they knew that in Oregon it’s illegal to pump your own gas.

Later, we all walked along the water front, and when a photo-op presented itself, his mom had me pose for a picture with Carlos and his dad and brother.  Carlos gave them a tour of downtown, and we ended up in a dimly lit restaurant that I was relieved to discover was too loud to encourage further conversation.  Carlos and his family all ordered beer with dinner.  I ordered a strawberry lemonade and felt like I was intruding on “Family” time.  Wondered suddenly what I was doing there, and had to curb an intense desire to flee.  Carlos’s hand beneath the table found my knee and gave it a reassuring squeeze that told me, I am family.

Impossible not to imagine him meeting my own parents at some point.  The one horse, Texas town where I grew up.  My mother standing with arms folded, staring at him blankly.  My dad asking him if he’s my girlfriend.  Dinner at a Golden Corral.  Sleeping in separate rooms.  A moratorium on personal displays of affection.  Introductions to extended family as my “friend.”

I first realized the depth of our commitment over a year ago when he suggested we get a joint bank account.  The idea of it intrigued and disturbed me in equal parts.  Even though I’d had relationships before, there’d never been any kind of financial co-mingling.  It was the first time I realized he was serious about being with me.  A seriousness that would continue to reveal itself in surprising ways.  How we’d stopped using protection when we had sex.  How I’d moved to a new town where I knew no one, just to be close to him.  How, to my surprise, I’ve never come to regret any of these decisions.

With the passing of time comes intimacy.  But there are some drawbacks to this much comfort.  We used to put in a movie as an excuse to have sex.  Now we actually watch the movie.  We used to be reserved.  Now we are people who are unembarrassed to pass gas in front of one another.  We used to have pet names for one another.  Now these names have devolved into things like “Bamboozle” and “Fuzzy Wuzzle.”  I try not to dwell on these things.

“How do you feel about moving to New York next year?”  He asks.  Imagine the two of us struggling to survive in a small apartment in Brooklyn.  A fold out bed that pulls down over the kitchen sink.  Neighbors screaming at one another in unknown languages. He and I cramped into this small space in this unknown city.  Tell him, “That sounds wonderful.”