Me, Myself, I

The last man that I had sex with wanted me to pretend to rape him.

We are naked in my bed, and he asks me to hold him down, so I oblige. I straddle him, holding down his shoulders, staring down at his red face, wishing I was alone instead.

“No, let me go.” He says. “I need to use the bathroom!”

I immediately leap up to let him go use the restroom. But instead, he whispers, “No, keep holding me down. Don’t let me up.”

I am so confused.

I hadn’t wanted to have sex in the first place. I’d just wanted to make out with a cute guy, which I’d told him explicitly while we were having cocktails and sharing an order of poutine. Yet flash forward an hour, and we’d somehow made it naked to my bedroom anyway.

“What’s wrong?” He asks, sensing my discomfort.

“This has just gone a little further than I intended.” I say.

He seems annoyed by my reticence. “We both know we didn’t come back to your apartment just to make out,” he says. His body is smooth and pink like an overgrown baby’s.

I should have asked him to leave, but instead, we finish what we were doing. He whispers his rape fantasy as he gets himself off. I hand him a towel. As he gets dressed, he talks to me about some upcoming shows he’s going to see as if there’s anything normal about what we’d just done. I just want him to go so I can be alone again.

I’d like to say this was a rare, random occurrence, but probably 95% of my sexual encounters were with men I hadn’t really wanted to have sex with. Because it’s easier for me to have sex with someone I’m not attracted to than it is for me to tell a person “No.”

That was months ago.

Since then I’ve had zero desire to go on dates. To meet new people. To “put myself out there.”

Instead I cancel plans.

I tell people I’m busy.

I say, “something came up.”

Instead I cocoon myself in my apartment. I read the latest Haruki Murakami. The latest Arundhati Roy. I watch cartoons. Play video games. Pretend to work on my supposed novel. I eat alone in restaurants and curl up alone in bed.

Other people would be lonely, but I get energized. After work I’m practically giddy just thinking about the ways I can spend my time. About finally having solitude. I dance in my kitchen making stir fries. I listen to music on headphones, and clomp around the apartment in house shoes.

In my ideal world, I’d have a boyfriend just one day a week, and the rest of the time would be Lance time.

In the real world, my boyfriend lives two states away and we haven’t seen one another since February.

Yesterday was our anniversary.

He calls and we talk for a couple of hours, but neither of us mention it. I tell him about my job. Friendly co-workers. A surprise raise. He tells me about school. The loneliness of a strange city. The difficulties of being poor.

We laugh at tasteless jokes.

He doesn’t know where to go for his 4 year degree. Or what to major in.

“What am I going to do with my life?” He asks in his Jerri Blank voice.

“What do you want to do?” I ask back.

He talks about wanting to buy a house in a small town one day. I tell him my desire to buy an apartment in a city.

“We just want different things.” He says.

That pretty much sums up the past 8 years of our relationship.

Today it snows.

I walk to the gym in the thick, black coat he bought me when we moved to New York City. Wet, white flakes melt in my beard as I cross over the Interstate downtown. After an Indian summer, it feels like fall lasted for only a week. Pumpkin spice and kicking through orange leaves. Now winter is already in full force.

In the gym I get cruised by senior citizens. White haired men with desiccated arms smile and wink as I walk from bench to bench. The good news is, my shoulder has finally healed, so the months of working out gingerly are over, and I’m nearly back to my old, pre-injury routine.

When a young man with blond hair and tattoos smiles at me, I’m so caught off guard, that I just look away, bewildered.

After the gym I meet my friends for brunch.

In the summer we sit outside, watching the men walk by in shorts and sandals. Now we huddle around an indoor table, watching men in coats and scarves scurry past as it snows.

“He’s cute.” Ducky says.

We all turn to look, but only see a hint of scruff and a puffy, blue coat.

Jason, who brought chocolate chip cookie cups, compliments my chest. Considering the fact that my friends make the Mean Girls seem nurturing and supportive by comparison, this is saying a lot.

The owner of the restaurants gets our table double shots of tequila. Cheers, the clink of glasses. I down mine in two gulps. Feel the warm alcohol slide down my throat. The table agrees that I’m more fun when I’m drunk.

“There’s nothing I’d do drunk that I wouldn’t do sober.” I say.

“But you don’t need as much convincing when you’re drunk.” Ducky says. “And you want to grab boys’ butts.”

We laugh. Jason makes a bukkake joke. “Sometimes a girl gets thirsty!” Madison says. We laugh some more.

We all have next Friday off work.

“Drinks, Thursday?” Ducky asks.

“We’ll see.” I say. “I’ve got a lot going on.”

“We all know that means you’ll be at home in bed, eating cookies and playing video games.” Ducky says. I keep forgetting that after so long, my friends actually know something about me.

“Maybe.” I say. “If it isn’t too cold and wet.”

“This is Seattle.” Ducky says.

Jason doesn’t have his patience. “Bitch, you’re going.” He says and it’s settled.

I remind myself that it’s good for me to spend time socializing with people, even if my instinct is to be a recluse. So I eat the orange slice that garnished my tequila shot. I smile at the people who smile at me. I laugh when someone says something funny. When it’s time to leave, I hug everyone goodbye.

“See you Thursday.” Ducky says.

“See you Thursday.” I say. I pull my jacket tightly and brace myself for the cold, for the long walk back home.

 

 

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3 Weeks

The second man I slept with when I got back to Seattle was a dancer. He wore red underwear. His sheets and bedspread were red. Red was everything I saw whether my eyes were closed or open. We kissed for hours, still in our underwear beneath his sheets. I kissed each of his tattoos as he told me the story of how it came to be. He briefly fell asleep with his head resting on my chest, his blond beard tickling my pale skin. When he woke up, we made out again, until we were no longer in our underwear.

We’d had dinner first at a Thai restaurant. His sense of humor was so dry and so subtle that I had a hard time discerning whether he was telling a joke, or being completely serious. The Thai place was a converted old home with criss-crossing strings of white lights in the trees outside. The wait staff knew his name and his order without him having to tell them.

“Is this where you bring all your tricks?” I asked.

He didn’t laugh.

When we were done, he handed me a towel to clean off with. I looked for my underwear and socks. I padded awkwardly across the creaking hardwood floors of his studio apartment. I was afraid he was going to ask me to spend the night, then disappointed when he didn’t.

Walking back to the train afterward, all I could think about was C. For seven years he’d been the only man that I had even kissed. For seven years I’d learned the way he liked to be touched, and the things that brought him pleasure. Now I was confronted with the body of a stranger that had a different set of responses, an entirely alien list of turn ons that were unknown to me. I’d felt clumsy and out of my depth.

I walked back in the rain and missed the familiarity of the man that I had lived with, his taste and smell. Instead my lips and fingers smelled like someone else. Everything I saw and everything I experienced was followed quickly by the thought of what C would think if he was seeing and experiencing those things with me. The glistening wet streets. A sticker on a bicycle rack that said, “Sissies rule!” An orange construction paper sign in the window of a brick building that said, “Not my president!”

A hipster couple stopped to pet a dog, edging me off the sidewalk. I stepped ankle deep in a puddle. The cold water shook me out of my reverie. I walked the rest of the way to the train in wet, soggy socks.

Another night I walked in the rain to have dinner with my friend Gitai, his husband Jonathan, and their three year old son. I arrived early before Jonathan got home from work. While Gitai finished making the food, I sat in the floor entertaining, or being entertained by, the aforementioned toddler. I never thought I was a kid person, but I was immediately charmed by this adorable youngster, already so full of personality. He handed me cars to play with which we drove around and crashed into one another while an attention hungry Corgi planted himself between my legs insisting to be pet.

When it was time for him to go to bed, he held my hand and had me read him a bedtime story. I sat in a stuffed animal bedroom and read a children’s book that he’d clearly been read enough times to memorize completely. He laughed when I made funny voices, and as I closed the book there was a brief flash before my eyes of another life. One where I had a home, a child, where I read bedtime stories and worried about good schools and karate lessons. The sudden, unexpected ache of never experiencing fatherhood made me catch my breath.

After the toddler went to bed, the grown ups sat upstairs with glasses of wine and a home cooked meal. The house was warm and toy strewn. The food was delicious. We talked, or I chattered incessantly about my numerous sexual insecurities while they gently bickered, until Jonathan began to doze off on the couch, which I took as my cue to head back home.

Because he is a father now, Gitai sent me home with an aluminum pan full of leftovers. Walking back to the train, I stopped at a traffic light and waited to cross the street. While waiting, a white man with dreadlocks came up to me and said, “Hey man, are those brownies?”

“No.” I said.

“Can I have one?” He asked.

“No.” I said.

He started to mumble something about patriarchy and white privilege, and I was relieved when the light changed and I was able to cross the street. Because I used to live in New York City, I told him to fuck off. Because I now live in Seattle, I said it quietly beneath my breath so he couldn’t hear.

One afternoon, I sat in my friend Matt’s apartment and watched an episode of The Great British Bake Off. It was wonderful to see him again. We sat on opposite ends of his couch as two cats dashed across the room. We talked about books while I sized up his apartment. It was the type of place I might have lived in if I’d stayed in one place long enough to accumulate belongings. There was a wall of vinyl and another of books, and art on the walls. He baked us a delicious cookie in a skillet and served it with ice cream and a homemade butterscotch syrup, and we drank gin and tonics. When it was time to leave I got confused and walked into the bathroom.

Because I am homeless and unemployed, he also sent me home with leftovers.

The frist man I had sex with when I got back to Seattle was a handsome man with a graying, ginger beard. We’d been chatting for some time when he invited me out for brunch on my second day back. We met at Pike Market and walked through the maze of shops, and throngs of tourists, to a posh eatery with a wine list considerably longer than the menu. He had a glass of wine, and I had a diet coke. We sat beside one another with our knees occasionally, accidentally touching.

We chatted easily over breakfast food. Biscuits and gravy and a bowl of fruit for me. Eggs Benedict for him.

When the check came, he paid it.

“Want to go back to my place?” He asked.

I thought it was a terrible idea, but I said, “Yes,” anyway, because he was sweet and charming, and because I have trouble telling people, “No.” It wasn’t that I didn’t want to sleep with him. He was an attractive guy with a handsome face and nice body. I did want to sleep with him…eventually. But in that moment I felt that I just wasn’t ready. It had been so many years since I’d been with anyone but C that even the thought of touching another man made me feel uneasy.

We sat on his couch while things unfolded in the usual fashion. We kissed, our beards rubbing together. At first I was turned on by the strangeness, the newness of the sensation of another person’s lips touching my own. He took off his glasses and I took off mine. Eventually we moved from the living room to the bedroom. I couldn’t get an erection, but he didn’t seem to mind. He asked if he could fuck me, and I said, “Yes.”

So he did. It had been years since someone had done that, and it hurt. But, it felt good too. Still my mind had already fallen out of the moment and I couldn’t really experience the pleasure I might have under other, better, circumstances.

Afterward I took a shower in a pale green bathroom, shivering from more than the cold. His cat watched me towel off. I put my clothes back on, and he drove me to my gym so that I could workout before going home. I was upset, but tried to seem like I was fine.

“Lets do that again soon.” He said.

I smiled non-commitally. The truth is, in order for me to enjoy sex, there has to be a perfect alignment of factors, and if there isn’t, I just zone out, and suddenly find myself thinking about the price of apartments in Seattle, the job I don’t yet have, the novel I haven’t written. And C. Always C.

I hadn’t been unfaithful. Even if we weren’t living in different states, C and I had had an open relationship for years. I had just never acted on it before. I hadn’t wanted an open relationship, really. It was just another in a string of things I found myself agreeing to to try to make him happy. He argued that monogamy was just a heteronormative construct that gay people had adopted to assimilate, and that it wasn’t realistic for two men to not sleep with other people. Because he is smarter than me, I couldn’t disagree. I didn’t know whether it was realistic or not, I just knew that I didn’t want to sleep with anybody else. But I didn’t want to stand in the way of him doing the things he wanted. So when he was in the shower and a message flashed across his phone about a hook up that he’d had, or that was in the works, I pretended not to notice.

In three weeks in Seattle I had three job interviews.

The first was for a horrible, low paying job through a temp agency. I took the train across the city in my slate gray interview suit, the only suit I own. I was witty and charming. I explained the cross country moves on my partner’s job (which was more or less true) and assured them I was back in Seattle for good. They laughed at my jokes and seemed impressed with my knowledge and responses to those interview questions that I can now recite from memory. They shook my hand with promises to get back to me soon.

A few days later I got an email from the temp agency that they decided to go with another candidate.

The second interview was for a reputable company for a job that would be a fantastic opportunity for me, that pays well, and that I would be ideally suited for. I wore my same suit and my housemate was kind enough to drive me so I wouldn’t get caught in the rain. I handled all of the questions well until the very end when they asked some specific questions about Excel that I found impossible to answer. I’ve used this program in nearly every job I’ve ever had, but to sit, without looking at a computer, and explain how to make a spreadsheet and run reports tripped me up.

After giving me a tour of the department, the manager turned to me and said, “There was a lot of competition for this position, since we had so many internal candidates.”

I assumed this was her oblique way of telling me that they were going to go with an internal applicant, so I left the interview feeling defeated.

Two days later, while I was at the gym, they called me to ask me some additional questions. I was still huffing from the treadmill as I gave my best responses to the new barrage of inquiries. I felt that, under the circumstances, I’d answered the new questions fairly well. They promised that they’d reach a decision early the following week. A week passed, and I never heard from them again.

For my third interview, I didn’t wear a suit. I wore a shirt and tie and a sweater vest. Walking to the train, a police car was blocking the street with its lights flashing.

“Please return to your house, sir!” A police officer in a megaphone shouted at me.

I walked to the police car, and a handsome officer with a buzz cut rolled down the window and told me that a canine was searching the area for a burglary suspect.

“I have a job interview downtown.” I said.

“Walk straight to the train.” He said, and rolled the window back up.

Several blocks down on Rainier avenue, I stood, waiting for the light to change.

A white car slowly drove past, and a young, black woman leaned out and shouted, “Suck my dick!”

When I got to the interview, the receptionist turned out to be a former co-worker I only vaguely remembered, who seemed to have a keen recollection of me. I crossed my fingers that her memory of me was a positive one.

The HR rep who interviewed me first was very nervous and apologetic.

“The woman who was leaving the position you applied for has decided to stay.” He said.

“She just told us today,” he said, “So that position is no longer open. But we still wanted to have you come in to see if you might be interested in this other position.”

He went on to describe the other position which was a lower paying, entry level one.

Because this is how my life works, I was unsurprised by the revelation. I interviewed for the other position. A kindly woman who was there in person, and a kindly sounding man who joined via telephone conducted the interview. The job was something I’ve done before when I lived in Austin, and I felt that the interview went well.

As I left, my former co-worker wished me luck.

To date, I haven’t heard back from them.

The third man that I had sex with when I got back to Seattle was a sweet, cute guy with an affinity for rubber. We walked to his apartment which was across from the apartment that I used to live in.

“A friend of mine used to live in this building.” I said as we stood outside, a view of the Space Needle, the mountains and downtown spread out before us. Of course he immediately knew who I was talking about, since they’d also been acquaintances. Inside we talked about books and video games. His apartment was cluttered with books and electronics and packages from Amazon. He cleared off the couch, and we made out.

My sex life  has always been incredibly vanilla. Coffee with nice guys and bland small talk on beige couches, awkward connections and even more awkward departures. But I rationalized that since this was another new start for me, since I’m now middle aged, I felt like stepping out of my comfort zone and experiencing things I hadn’t previously tried.

Age 40 is as good an age as any for me to become comfortable with my own sexuality.

He led me to his bedroom and had me try on some of his gear. He zipped me into a sleeveless rubber shirt, and a rubber jockstrap. He put on a rubber outfit of his own, and our bodies squeaked together as we kissed. The rubber didn’t especially do anything for me. But the dressing up aspect was sexy, and his gentle persona put me at ease and made me feel comfortable enough to dip my toes into unfamiliar territory.

He peeled me out of the underwear and shirt and had me slide into a rubber suit that was sort of a cross between Johnny Depp’s outfit in Edward Scissorhands, and a straightjacket. I lay on his bed with a hood covering my eyes. He had to smear my entire body with lubrication to slip me into the suit.

The tight suit prevented me from moving, but unzipped to allow him access to areas of interest. These areas were explored by him as I lay, letting the sensations happen, completely in the moment. I lay with my senses deprived, feeling restrained, yet oddly safe and at ease. I couldn’t see what he was doing, but I could feel as he slid a condom on me and straddled me. As he did so, I rose to meet him. There was only a moment when I felt ridiculous and wanted to laugh, but I managed to stifle it.

When we were done he had to help peel me out of the rubber suit. I smelled like rubber the rest of the day, at the gym and on the train, in a coffee shop, and back at home.

That night I got an upset stomach. For days I lay in bed with the flu. I had fever and the chills. I lay beneath a blanket simultaneously burning up and shivering. I binge watched TV shows, and avoided looking at my bank account, the bills that were due, or looking for other jobs. I canceled plans for drinks, for coffee with other men in other coffee shops, for brunch with friends. It felt good to have nowhere to be and nothing to do but lay in bed alone. I was exhausted and stressed from so much unaccustomed stimulation.

I thought about the other experiences that I’d like to have, sexual and otherwise. And some things that will likely remain fantasy. Of threesomes, groups, of other kinks, of other cities, of the perfect job, the perfect partner, or no partner, of the lives I might have lived if I’d made other decisions, and the life I can still live. Right now, in the present.

Occasionally I get texts from the dancer, asking me what I’m wearing. He sends me a picture of himself lying in bed on his side in a pair of pajama bottoms and no shirt, arms outstretched, holding the camera, his bearded jaw and muscular chest taking up the bulk of the frame.

“Hope you feel better soon.” He texts.

I text, “I hope so too.”

Just Like Heaven – Seattle, 2007

“Look, we’re wearing the same underwear,” he says. His mouth is swollen and red like the splitting skin of a squashed plum.  He finishes pulling down my pants.  There is no denying the unembarrassed redness of our briefs.

“So we are.”  I agree.

His pale skin is a stark contrast against his flannel sheets.  I slide on a condom.  His hand is on my chest.  Red.  I close my eyes.  Red.  When we kiss, we are reduced to a pair of red, open mouths.

Earlier, I’d been sitting in a coffeehouse, pretending to read, silently willing him to ask me what I was reading, to ask my name, to say something, anything.  Outside the sun crept blood red across a purple sky like a fuzzy spider.  A ray of light set all the trees lining the boulevard on fire.  My reflection was superimposed over the empty, gray street below as I stared dully out the window, surprised by the intensity of my own longing.

Later I sit naked on the edge of his bed.

“Can I snoop through your bag?”  He asks.

“Sure.” I say.

I start to put my clothes on.

“Which is which?”  I ask, holding up identical pairs of red underwear.

“At this point does it really matter?”  He asks.

At this point, I have to concede, it probably doesn’t, and I shrug into one pair and hand him the other.  I put on my pants and sweater and look under his bed for my socks.

“Can I borrow this?”  He asks of the book I’d been pretending to read when we met.  An impressively long, French novel, that after five years I’d never finished reading.

“Sure.”  I respond.  I put my hand on his naked shoulder and kiss the top of his head, gently.  I cannot find my socks.

“Good.”  He grins.  “Now you’ll have to see me again.”

Outside it has gotten cold, and I walk with my hands tucked under my arms back to Hannah’s apartment.  I walk up Pine Street, toward Broadway, where the homeless people huddle in doorways, where empty syringes litter the sidewalk of an abandoned lot, where young men in leather jackets walk from one bar to the next, where the sky is red and black like an infected wound, and no one expects any kindness.  A homeless man asks if I have any change, but I shake my head “no” and keep on walking.  When I rub my nose I notice that my fingers smell like him, and I smile into the cold night.  My breath hovers in front of my face like a lonesome ghost.

When she feels sad, Hannah puts on high-heeled shoes and plays the piano.  I hear the music echo down the hallway before I get to her door.  Once there I pause and wonder if I should go back to the coffeehouse.  I slip in, anyway.  She sees me and smiles, and once she’s finished with her song asks, “How was the coffeehouse?”

“Good.” I respond, taking off my shoes.  I leave my wallet, watch, and keys in a neat pile.  I try to be as unobtrusive as I can.

“Like the ones back home?”  She asks, sitting on her piano bench, draping an old, fringed blanket over the keyboard.

“No.”  I say.  “But promising.”

“That’s good,” she says.

I ask about her day at work.  She is the bookkeeper of a retirement community.  She relates a story about Herman, an alcoholic, paraplegic war veteran who came down stairs in his wheelchair with no pants on, covered in feces when they were showing some new prospective tenants the facilities.  She saw him first and wheeled him back up to his apartment before anyone else had a chance to see him and had an aid give him a bath and dress him.

“I guess we’ve got something to look forward to!”  I say, but Hannah just snorts and shakes her head.
“No,” she says.  “We could never afford a place like Victorian Gardens.  We’ll end up in some state run place, smelling like pee and talking to the walls.”

“I’m glad we had this talk.”  I say.

She grins at me with her crooked smile and says, “Let me cut your hair.”  I acquiesce and she leads me to her bathroom.  I sit on the edge of her bathtub with no shirt on.  She stands behind me with a pair of scissors and a comb.  “You were out late,” she says.  I feel her cold fingers on my scalp, on the back of my neck.  “Sit still.” She says.

I watch the tiny blond hairs fall into my lap.

“I met a boy.”  I say.

“That’s good.  That’s just what you need.”  She says, “lift your head.”  Her hand is under my chin.  After a while she says, there.  “How does it look?” I stand holding her compact and look at the back of my head in her bathroom mirror.

“Great.”

Then she says, “Want to go grab some hot chocolate?”

Walking to the French café across the street from her apartment we see that they have lit the Christmas tree on top of the Space Needle.  In the café we eat croissants filled with nutella and carols play and we joke about how Christmas music is inescapable.  We watch people walk by from the shops downtown with their arms full of shopping bags, packages tied up in neat, red bows.

Then we see him, her imaginary boyfriend.  He’s tall and thin, with sideburns like lightning bolts wearing all black.  She slips out of her seat and runs out after him.  They went out twice, and then he stopped returning her calls.  Nevertheless, she is convinced that he is her soul-mate and has spent hours sitting on her couch with me, analyzing the possible reasons why he hasn’t returned her calls, and relating why they are perfect for one another.

I see them standing in the street below beneath a streetlamp, her red lips and red shoes, the coal black shock of her coiled hair, her pale face.  I see them shout at one another as shoppers pass by hurriedly, as a homeless man sits waiting for a bus.  I look at my spoon sitting in a pool of pale brown chocolate in my white saucer.  I look up again and the imaginary boyfriend is gone, and Hannah is standing in the street alone.

In her apartment I curl up with a blanket on her couch.  After hours of her crying, after she stands on her balcony setting fire to a dried rose he had given her, after she leaves two sobbing, incoherent messages on his cell phone, after rubbing her back, after consolations and good nights and see you in the mornings, sleep becomes impossible.  Sometimes at night I turn into a giant, red monster, and I stomp around, smashing things and crushing entire buildings beneath my red, monster feet.   I stomp through memories and smash them.  Smash the face of the young man from the coffeehouse.  Smash Hannah’s bathtub.  Smash the  weathered awnings of the French café.  Once the night has been ripped to pieces so that only blackness remains, then finally, fitful sleep.

The entire city is underwater, blue and bloated as a mermaid’s lips.

“Get used to it.”  My coworker warned me.  “You won’t see the sun again for months.  Winter makes everyone crazy.”

Puget Sound is the same slate gray as the sky, as the sidewalks and the buildings, and there is no horizon, just muted shades of the same headachy color.  I walk to work shivering, my jacket damp from the wet, misty air.  The warm, rumbling thunderstorms of Texas seem like an imagined landscape from another world.

I’d left Hannah’s the week before and moved into an apartment of my own.  I’d traded a small space cramped with wires, electronics and musical equipment for the emptiness of stark white walls and unpacked boxes.  I’m relieved to no longer be sleeping on someone else’s couch, to have a place of my own again.

 

“I can hear you smiling.”  He says, as we lie curled up on his bed, afterward.  I can tell that I like him, because of my willingness to spend the entire night squished into his single bed.

“Did I happen to leave a necklace here last time?”  I ask him.

“I don’t think so,” he says. “What does it look like?”

“It’s blue.”

“I’ll look for it.”  He says.

“Thanks.”

“Who’s Jeremy?” He asks in the quite dark.

A question can fold space, can Medusa your whole body.  Your skin, your sinew and your organs can all solidify.  Dreams can be awakened from and realities can implode.  I feel myself sinking into his bed, stiff as stone.  “Why do you ask?”  Words forced through petrified lips, and even they seem heavy and solid.

“His name is written on the inside cover of that book you loaned me.”  He says.

“Just someone I used to know,” I say. He turns over, satisfied.  I feel the flesh of his arm against the stone of my chest.

Morning.  He and I go to a Russian bakery and get piroshkies for breakfast.  We walk down to Pioneer Square and take the underground tour of the city.  We walk through narrow walkways, the concrete of the city sidewalks above us, sunlight filtering in through purple skylights.  He holds my hand.  Mice scurry in the stones and rubble near our feet.  Ghosts shuffle down the abandoned avenues propelled by the memory of warmth.

We stand on the corner and he asks if I want to go see the Van Gogh exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum.

“I’m helping Hannah put up fliers for her show next week.”  I say.

“When is her show, again?”  He asks.

I tell him that the show is on Saturday.  I tell him he should come.

“Is it 21 and up?”  He asks. He stands in front of me, his hands in the pockets of my jacket to keep them warm.

“I guess so.” I say. “I don’t know.  Why?”

“Well, if it is I can’t go.”  He says.

I don’t immediately understand. “Wait?” I ask.  “How old are you?”

“20.”  He answers.  “How old are you, 23?”

“Oh god.” I say.

“24?”  He ventures.

I look at him, horrified. “Oh god.”  I say again.

Hannah and I are walking up Pike with a stack of fliers, advertising her show.

“You’re dating a 20 year old?”  She asks, laughing, and I immediately regret having told her.

“We’re not dating.  It’s just sex.” I say. “Only now it isn’t anything.  I’m cutting it off.”

She asks me to hand her the tape.  The newspaper beside us has a picture of Mount St Helens puffing a curl of thick, gray smoke into the sky.  Hannah tells me that she thinks Twenty is a good distraction, exactly what I need.  She and her Imaginary Boyfriend have reconciled and he’s coming to her show.  Besides, none of it will matter if the volcano explodes.

I tell her that the volcano is too far away.  Probably.  We imagine the city turned to ash.  The people will all be frozen, mundane figurines trapped in their everyday tasks like the citizens of Pompeii, to be rediscovered by some future archeologists.

“They’d think I was an accountant and you worked in a cubicle.”  Hannah says.  “No one would ever be able to tell who we really are.”  This is her biggest fear, invisibility. I realize that every action of Hannah’s stems from her desire to be seen, from her need for an audience.

“Who are we?”  I ask, and the question hovers in the air between us, unanswered.

Back at my apartment building I run into my neighbor, a drag queen with beautiful, caramel colored skin and a fondness for old soul music.  She sasses by in a powder blue dress and blue, high heeled shoes, a feathered boa.  I struggle with my key.

“Girl, I know you’re going to come to my show on Saturday!”  She says.

“I’ll try.”  I say, and I open the door to my apartment and go inside.  The walls are all still bare and white and the boxes all unpacked.  On my phone there is a text from Twenty.  He found my necklace behind his bed.  I should go meet him for Vietnamese and he’ll return it to me.

I meet Twenty for Vietnamese.

“Is this yours?”  He asks, holding the blue, beaded necklace in his hands.

“Yes.”  I say, eyes glistening.   The familiar feel of the necklace in my hands again.  I run my fingertips over the bumpy ceramic tile of the tabletop.

“It must mean a lot to you.”  Twenty says.

I agree that it does.

We order Pho, and sit across from one another, the steaming bowls of broth in front of us.

“You don’t look that old.”  He says, squeezing a slice of lime over his soup.

“Thanks.”  I say, stirring bean sprouts and basil into my broth, waiting for it to cool.

“Age is just a number.”  He says.  Over dinner I am surprised that I forget that he is twenty.  We talk about movies that we both love, and how he wants to study linguistics, that one day he wants to have children of his own.  Seeing a couple walk by outside with a baby between them, we smile, and his hand crawls across the table and finds mine.  “I really like you,” he says.

Outside we’re walking down Broadway, debating whether or not to stop at the chocolate shop for tiramisu.  I’m fingering my necklace, walking away from a warm, remembered past into an uncertain future.  The universe expands and contracts, and in that moment it seems possible that there is space enough for both the past and the present all at once.

 

“Will you buy me a Guinness?”  He asks, as we sit in a dark corner of the Karma Café waiting for Hannah’s show to start, our knees touching.

“So now I’m supposed to supply alcohol to a minor?”  I ask with feigned indignation.  I squint at him and then go to the bar and order a Guinness and a gin and tonic and carry them back to the table where Twenty waits for me.

“You’re the handsomest man here,” he says when I sit down beside him.

“Flattery will get you everywhere.”  I tell him, and hand him his beer.  The taste of gin on my lips as Hannah comes onto the stage in a black, low-cut dress.  Her hair is done up in ringlets.  She sits at the piano in high heels and begins to play.

“She’s good.”  Twenty whispers to me.  His knee is pressed against my own. Our shoulders are rubbing against one another.  I taste the sweet alcohol on his breath,  the smell of his cologne.

Hannah plays piano with a desperate intensity.  She sings, her thin voice rises high above the candlelight above the assembled audience and echoes in the rafters.  I look at the pale, candlelit faces of the audience as they look at Hannah.  There is the sound of glasses and bottles clanking, of people talking at the back of the bar, of pool balls smashing against one another from the other room.  I look outside and see two men passing a joint back and forth in the blustery, anemic night.

When the show is over, the audience stands in lingering clumps, looking in purses for cigarettes or checking the time on their cell phones.  A man begins disconnecting the microphone and amps and is rolling up cords.  Twenty and I walk up to Hannah and Twenty says, “You were great!”

I nod my assent, and say, “Really, it was a great show.”

Hannah scans the audience, now disappearing, or milling about in small circles.  “He didn’t come.”  She says.  “He said he would.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart.”  I squeeze her hand.  “Do you want to go grab dinner somewhere?”

She shakes here head, “No. You two go,” she says.  “I’m going to talk to the owner about another gig.”

Walking with Twenty down the street, he says, “You and Hannah must be very close.”

“We are.”  I agree.   But since moving to Seattle, I feel almost like we are strangers who know too much about each other, that all we have in common now is history, that if we hadn’t spent our twenties together, we probably wouldn’t be friends at all.  The only language we have in common is disappearing, being replaced with new words and new memories.

“You’re getting a bald spot.”  He says, his finger tracing a smooth place starting to form at my crown.  “It’s cute.”  He kisses the top of my head.  I’m sitting cross legged in his apartment, looking through the music on his phone while he picks up some homework to work on at the coffeehouse.

“You have terrible taste.”  I tell him.  I’m suddenly so afraid that he’ll stop liking me that I have trouble catching my breath.  The heart is such a stupid organ, I think.  It just keeps on beating, even though, at this point, it must be made entirely of scar tissue.  I imagine myself in a giant bubble, like the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz.  I imagine floating down to the bottom of the ocean, alone and safe in inky blackness.

“Lets go.”  He says, wrapping his fingers around my hand like a giant squid and pulling me up again.

At the coffeehouse an Asian girl sits in a corner, setting the timer on her digital camera to take a picture of herself.  We watch her smile, watch the camera flash.  She looks at the picture, and, unsatisfied, sets the timer again.

A young man with unwashed hair walks by wearing a red, Che Guevara T-shirt.  “Do you want me to do that for you?” He offers.

She nods, says “Thanks.”

“Smile,” he says, and she smiles.  The camera flashes.  The two of them look at the picture together.  They smile at one another and the waitress smiles, and I smile.  A deaf couple signs to one another, and they are smiling.  Everyone in the coffeehouse is smiling.

Twenty is sitting at the table across from me, working on trigonometry.

“Who is this?”  He asks when “Just Like Heaven” begins to play on the speakers overhead.

“The Cure!” I exclaim, shocked.

“Never heard of them.”  He says, and goes back to studying.

My narrow bed requires spooning.  My arm is wrapped around his chest.  The aching awareness that all that is separating us is a remarkably thin pair of underwear.   Outside the steady traffic on the interstate has become an impostor ocean.  Concrete, sprawling and gray.  The occasional blaring of a horn, a police siren, the revving engine of a motorcycle.  City sounds.  A discordant lullaby that does nothing to soothe my insomnia.

The drag queen next door arrives home from the club.  She plays “Sunday Kind of Love,” and sings along in a rich, baritone voice.  When the song stops, she plays it once again.  Someone in the apartment below her bangs on their ceiling with a broomstick and she turns the music off.

“Tomorrow we’re listening to nothing but the Cure.”  I tell Twenty.

He rolls over and kisses me, and he kisses me again.

My mind races. “I can’t believe I bought alcohol for a minor!  I can’t believe that I bought alcohol for a minor who I then had sex with!  I can’t believe that I bought alcohol for a minor who has never even heard of the Cure, and then had sex with him.  Twice.  What am I doing?  I’m a 31 year old man and he is 20.  20.  He was not alive when The Challenger exploded.  He doesn’t recall a time when there was no internet.  He has never mailed someone a letter.”  And then, “He has never lost someone he loved.”

Sunday morning.  He convinces me to walk with him in the rain to Pike Market to The Seattle Cheese Festival.  I let him drag me through the crowd from booth to booth.  He hands me cubes of cheese on toothpicks from different countries.  After about the 10th Gouda, I stop eating them and put them in my pocket until I can discretely throw them away.

Walking home, it is still raining.  I round a corner and stop in my tracks.  Standing across from me is a wolf.  Or anyway, I tell myself, it’s just a dog that looks like a wolf, a white, hulking beast straight from Siberia.  Twenty has already left me to go study.  We kissed goodbye in front of all the cold, wet tourists at the market, so I am alone.  The street near my apartment is deserted, eerily barren of Sunday traffic.  The wolf and I regard one another.  His black eyes meet my blue ones.  I am standing close enough to see the moisture on his coal black snout.

An ambulance passes in the distance, and as the siren wails, the wolf closes his eyes and howls in unison.  When the ambulance has passed, I turn, warily, and the wolf turns, and the two of us pad away in opposite directions.

At her apartment Hannah and I order Chinese take-out.  We eat with wooden chopsticks in front of the white light of her television.

“A wolf?”  She asks.

“Not a wolf,” I say uncertainly.  “A dog that looked like a wolf.”

“No fortune cookies.”  She says, disappointed.

“Maybe that’s for the best.”  I say.  She laughs and lays her head on my shoulder.

“I really wanted him to want me.”  She says.

“I know.”

She cries.  I can feel the wet tears seeping through my shirt.  I lay my head against her head.  I smooth her hair.  For a moment, we are in our twenties.  Sitting in the bedroom of my old apartment,  listening to The Cure on my stereo.  I feel suddenly larger than myself.  Like I’m too big for my own body.

“I love you.”  I whisper into her hair.

Night.  Twenty is in my bed, asleep.  I stare at his pale, white back.  The light brown freckles that spill across his shoulders.  The curve of his thigh, white leg against white sheets.  I want to memorize him.  The knobs of his spine.  The uneven line of his dark hair across his neck.  Nothing on earth is as smooth and soft as the small of his back.  I kiss him between his shoulder blades.  He wakes up, slides out of bed to go to the bathroom.    He stops in front of the window.  The blind is rolled up so that we can see the outline of the city stretching out below us.  I see him bathed in the orange light of the security lamp outside.

“It’s snowing.”  He says.

I crawl out of bed and stand behind him.  Outside, the trees and cars and buildings are all blanketed in white.  Glistening.  His skin.  White.  The walls of my apartment.  White.  The sidewalks and the streets.  White.  I want to memorize this moment.  To record it.  To be able to replay it on some future night, when he is, or isn’t there.  When it is, or isn’t snowing.  Think, how delicate time is.

He turns to me and smiles.

I put my arm around his naked shoulders and together we watch it snow.

Astral Projections – Austin, 1999

Things that seem like a good idea when you’re horny rarely continue to do so when the feeling passes. Despite having already learned this life lesson, I choose to ignore it, because I’m horny. This explains why I’m driving downtown on a Sunday night to meet a man I’d chatted up on some sleazy hook-up site instead of going to bed at a reasonable hour like a more responsible citizen.

I see him first and am relieved. He looks just like his picture, indy funk in his early thirties, darkly balding with serious lips and laser tag eyes. He is sitting on the stoop of Spider  House holding an oversized cup of coffee, finishing a cigarette. He is a thrift store sweater in a vintage jacket and clunky shoes, worn and comfortably corduroy, in a warm, fuzzy way that implies snuggling and hot chocolate with marshmallows.

“Hey.” I say, as I James Dean up to him with my hands in my pockets. I am a t-shirt and rolled up blue jeans, suddenly self conscious, suddenly too pale and too skinny, suddenly afraid he’s going to see me and bolt, or pretend he doesn’t speak English, or that his name is Edgar and I must be looking for someone else. There are precedents.

“Hey.” He says, standing up. “Lance?” I agree that I am. He smells like stale cologne and smoke as he presses against me with an introductory hug. But I smell love on a molecular level, in coffee cups, in his pockets, in the tiny creases beside his eyes. There is an exchange of protons and electrons, and in my stomach an internal mushroom cloud of fumbling desire quietly implodes.

We both know it’s too late on a Sunday night for the coffee to be casual, but I’m still pretending innocence. “Sometimes coffee is just coffee,” I tell myself. “Eleven o’clock coffee on a Sunday night just means we’re alternative, not desperate.” But let’s face it, I’m wearing my just-in-case underwear. My body, at least, takes the situation for what it is, a hook-up, and responds accordingly.

He leaves one arm around my waist and says, “Where do you want to sit?”

“Anywhere is fine,” I tell him. I become so aware of his hand on the small of my back that it feels almost uncomfortable. The absent minded familiarity of it is burning through my t-shirt. It is impossible to think of anything else except how long it’s been since I’ve been touched by another person.

“Do you want some coffee?” He asks.

“I don’t like coffee.” I say, and immediately regret saying it, because I don’t want to seem negative or weird, so I try to recover by adding, “I mean I like it, but only if it has so much sugar and cream that it no longer actually resembles coffee.  So what’s the point?”

“Oh, you’re one of those.” He says.

“I like the way it smells?” I have a habit of ending statements with question marks like I’m not really certain of anything, because I’m not.

“You’re cute.” He says as he leads me to some benches in a corner beneath a tree criss-crossed with strings of year-round colored Christmas lights.

“No I’m not,” I blush. The smallest compliment and I turn into a stuttering, human lobster. “Anyway, I’m glad you think so.” I smile and say, “You too.”  I’m encouraged by the fact that he hasn’t invented an early meeting yet, an imaginary boyfriend, or some terrible, wasting disease before disappearing into the blind-date ether.

“Thanks,” he grins. “I was here earlier tonight with my roommate.  We had a couple beers and chilled.”

“Cool.” I say, even though I think beer is as repulsive as fermented dishwater.  I look around at the benches, the coffeehouse girls with their poetry notebooks, the heroin armed waitresses, square jawed bus-boys, the armless, outside statues, anything but his face that only looks at me.

“I used to come here all the time.” I say.

“Why’d you stop?” He asks, interested.

I tell him I don’t remember and excuse myself to buy a hot chocolate and re-group.

I’d stopped going to Spider House the summer after Jeremy moved to Minneapolis, taking down his Hopper prints, his Beatles CDs, his Monty Python DVDs, leaving one half of the closet empty. That summer and that place are superimposed over one another. Reckless nights with tall, blond impostors. The French films. The Russian novels. My heartbreak had an international flair.

I sat outside, slapping mosquitoes, smiling too eagerly at any guy wearing Converse sneakers, picking the blood smeared legs of squashed insects off my pale, white arms. It was a summer of carnage, insect and otherwise. My little, red heart was only the latest in a string of casualties. Everyone I knew had been dumped as soon as the semester ended and the objects of our respective affections flew to Minske, or New York, or Minneapolis.

I sat outside with the students who either couldn’t afford to leave, or who had summer classes. I sat with my same backpack, my Cherry Italian Soda, my Russian novel, even though I’d graduated a semester before, because the life of a student was the only one I knew. Already I was becoming obsolete, replaced by newer models, hipsters in skinny jeans and matching haircuts who listened to bands I’d never heard of.

I’d stopped going to Spider House because I couldn’t escape my burgeoning mediocrity, the unavoidable, universal truth that I’d become a twenty-something failure. My defeat was worn into the seams of the threadbare couches, scuffed on the unswept hardwood floors and buried beneath flea market rugs, invisible to strangers, maybe, but inescapable. Writing in journals and pretending to read, sipping overpriced beverages and looking for love in the bottom of every coffee cup had become my routine. I’d stopped going once the barista knew my order without me having to tell him because I was too ashamed that my life consisted of nothing else.

“If it was clear,” he says, when I sit down again, “We could see the Leonids.”

“The what?” I sip my hot chocolate gingerly, wishing I’d ordered tepid chocolate instead in order to avoid burning my tongue in case the evening leads to kissing of the French variety, as I suspect it might.

“The meteor shower,” he says. “It’s supposed to be phenomenal tonight.”  The two of us are looking into the clear, night sky.  The stars above us are dimmed and invisible from the light pollution of the city.

His insight into things celestial pleases the romantic in me. “Are you one of those guys who knows the names of constellations?” I ask.

“No.” He says.

I have an infinite capacity for disappointment.

“Do you go to Cons?” He asks, sitting perpendicular to me, his arm draped casually around my shoulder. Every move he makes seems so natural and fluid, and my own movements seem all the more spastic by comparison. I’m completely incapable of acting naturally.

“Is that a club?” I ask. I can be pretty oblivious.

“No. You know. Conventions?” He’s smiling quizzically at me like he’s discovered some new species of marine life but hasn’t decided how important his find is.

All I can imagine is a bunch of old men in red fezzes with name tags, and a cheap tablecloth punch bowl in a room full of folding chairs.

“You mean, like Shriners?” I ask.

“No.” He says. “Like, just a bunch of sci-fi fans and hardcore nerds. They can get pretty wild.”

I am quietly horrified, pegging him as a Magic: The Gathering player, one of those Society for Creative Anachronism geeks, sitting at a Renaissance fair in a Lyrca Star Trek uniform brandishing an oversized turkey leg. The thought repels me. Nothing good can come of this.

“You want to go back to my place and watch a movie or something?” He asks.

“Yes.” I answer without hesitation. What can I say? The things that repulse me can also attract me.

I follow him back to his apartment, me in my brick colored Laotian, economy car and he in his beige Volvo, driving faster than I’m entirely comfortable as we make our way along the one way streets downtown, afraid of losing him at intersections. I realize that one of two things is about to happen: 1). Either we are going to go back to his apartment where we will meander through some pointless small talk before having awkward sex on his small, springy bed, or 2). We will actually watch a movie. I wish I had a breath mint.

At this point we are barely more than wires crossing, than messages sent through phone lines, through the skeletal branches of winter trees, buried beneath the cold stone of vagrant city sidewalks, whispered along the peeling whitewash of suburban sprawl, a flickering image on my computer screen transferred electronically to his. But by the time I reach his apartment, I’ve gay married us and have us rooming in a loft downtown living scenes of wet nosed puppy Christmases and candlelit saxophone dinners with wine glasses, an adopted Guatemalan baby, his and his matching bath towels. My kinkiest fantasy is always a rough approximation of domesticity.

Inside his apartment I make an immediate b-line to his bookshelf only to be dismayed by its contents. His collection consists entirely of vegan cook books, biographies of the Dalai Lama, and pulp science fiction novels. My ability to imagine us adopting a Guatemalan baby is becoming more and more difficult with every new disclosure, but I still somehow manage to convince myself that there is a future laid out for us, a silver anniversary and a two-car garage. The truth is, I find it nearly impossible to have sex with someone if I can’t at least pretend that it might lead to some conventional life like the one my parents wanted for me.

We sit on his hand me down sofa with his yappy, little dog between us, the kind a wealthy, blond heiress might keep in her designer purse, nervous and deranged, all eyes and fangs. I get the impression that the dog hates me, and the feeling is mutual.

“I’ve got Jem and the Holograms and Masters of the Universe on DVD, and some old, horror movies, if you want to watch something.” He says.

“I’m fine with anything.” I say, inwardly horrified that we’re actually going to watch a movie.

“I’m going to grab a drink,” he says, standing. “Can I get you something?”

“Whatever you’re having is great.” I peruse his movies while he gets the drinks. Saturday morning cartoons from his childhood. B-horror movies. Documentaries on organic farming and spirituality.  I think, “My soul-mate would never watch The Secret.”

He brings me back a beer. I resign myself to it. I’m a lightweight who hardly ever imbibes so, half a beer later, I’m giggling at everything he says. I’m the kind of drunk who laughs constantly and tells people he loves them whether he does or not.

We watch Jem and the Holograms and agree that the Mysfits’ songs really were better. His hand is inching closer and closer to my knee.  He’s cute enough that I’m willing to overlook his poor taste and hippie underpinnings.  I imagine light-hearted arguments over our Guatemalan baby’s diet and religious upbringing.

When he tries to kiss me, his dog leaps to fill the space between us, nipping at my jugular, demanding his attention, licking his chin. She looks at me with one eye, letting me know where I stand, which is mauled and limping and preferably outside somewhere if she had any say in the matter.

“Do you have a dog?” He asks.

“I’m more a cat person.” I say.

“Do you have a cat?” He asks.

“No.”  I answer, smiling too broadly.

“Want to go back to my room?” He asks.

“Yes.”

He leaves the dog outside. I smirk at her as he closes the door. Small victories. He takes his clothes off and I admire his hardwood floors. His body is thin and pale, dark hair in sparse patches on his chest and belly like transplants steadfastly refusing to take root. He pulls me close and kisses me, his eyes closed, mine open, looking for a place to set my beer. Finding none I hold it awkwardly until he takes it from my hand and sets it on the bedside table.

Things proceed in the usual fashion ending in us both naked on his small, springy bed when he asks, “Do you want to fuck me?”

“If you’ve got the condoms and lube, then I’ve got the time.” I say. I have no idea who I am sometimes.

“I’ve got lube, but no condoms.” He says. “Is that a problem?”

My body becomes completely immobile.  Reading the horror on my face and my rapidly waning erection, he tries to reassure me with, “It’s okay, I tested negative a couple months ago.”

I am not reassured.

“I don’t do it without a condom,” I say, when really I just want to flee and not look back. He’s suddenly radioactive, and my built in Geiger counter does everything in its power to warn me away.

Disappointed, he says, “It’s cool. I can just suck you off.”

This happens. I float out of my body, drift into the cold night beneath stars, beneath street lamps, past all night diners, closed book stores, the late night coffee houses, through phone lines, radio waves, through all the dead ends and misconnections, thinking, “There’s someone out there for me.”

Somewhere.

Not here.

“Will I see you again?” He asks as I’m leaving, his face full of sideways eyes and crooked smiles. I appreciate his misplaced optimism. The two of us are on either side of his half-open doorway, him silhouetted in orange light from inside, me pale beneath the dim light of early morning sky.

“Maybe.” I say, my breath hanging soft and gray in the air between us like a question mark.

“Maybe later this week?” He presses, squinty in a pair of boxer shorts. Saggy elastic.  Any lingering romance disappears in the harsh light of morning.   He becomes another notch on my internal bedpost that, at this point, must be splintered and devoid of paint.

I slide out of his fingers, catlike through the crack of the open door, and out into the city to the street below.

“Maybe.” I call back to him. But we both know that I don’t mean it.