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.

Wolves – Texas, 1995/NYC, 2013

lancewolvesIn New York City the wind howls down the stairwells leading to the subway. Scarecrows in designer shoes pull their black coats tightly as they descend. They travel in packs, in their gray suits fresh from Wall Street. There is a hunger that drives them to early meetings, to bars and back to apartments in Chelsea, Midtown, and the Upper West Side. I see it etched in their gaunt faces, shining blackly in their dark, feral eyes. We stand, starched and freshly pressed in subway cars as young people break dance between stops and walk through collecting change. We stand so close together that we can feel the heat of one another’s breath, and smell the barest hint of aftershave that lingers after a day spent in cubicles and conference rooms. All lonely hunters, searching for the same thing. All driven by the same, dull ache. Everywhere I go, there are wolves.

I come from a family of hunters. In the fall when I was growing up, my father would come home from a hunting trip with a  deer strung up on a tree, skinned, it’s blood draining into a stained, white bucket to be cut up into venison. My grandfather trapped mountain lions to kill them for their pelts. Once he’d even trapped a wolf, a skinny, gray she wolf. After killing her, he’d heard a rustling in the nearby leaves, a tiny whimper, and discovered that she had a little pup. My grandfather coaxed the little pup out of the brush and took it home to raise it like a dog.

But Wolf was not a dog. Though he’d started out looking like any other puppy with his oversized head and clumsy paws, as he grew up and became leaner, hulkier, there was a wildness that came out at inconvenient times. He was protective and snarled and growled at strangers like the mail man and the gas meter reader. No matter how well fed he was, he behaved as if he was starving, nipping at my grandmother when she came home with bags of groceries. My cousins and I were wild too, rowing across ponds in old, rusty wash tubs,  building forts in the same brush where wild hogs rooted, and bob cats padded along with shining eyes, climbing trees and jumping into piles of leaves.

My grandfather’s property was bordered by train tracks that ran along the northern edge, and one night my grandfather said that he found Wolf’s body lying beside the tracks. He’d been hit by a train during a lonesome, late night walk. I always wondered if that had really happened or if my grandfather had shot him because he knew that the adult wolf was going to be too dangerous to live among people, and too unused to fending for himself to survive on his own. I never asked. As children we were told so many stories to protect us from the harsh realities of life.

I was learning to lie, myself.

I was collecting Jasons and desperately trying to lose my virginity. I was 18, and the prospect of turning 19 and still being a virgin was too humiliating a fate to subject myself to. Jason II and I had been dating for a few weeks. Because I was living with my parents during my first year of college, I had a curfew of 1:00 am, and there was a 45 minute drive from Jason II’s dorm room back to my parent’s house. Every time things were just getting good, I’d have to stop and leave. We were both frustrated with pent up desire.

His M.O. was always the same. We’d go to a movie, then have dinner, then sit on his couch and make out in front of the TV, his hand slowly creeping up from my knee toward my inner thigh. The first two times we’d nearly gotten to the moment where we’d begin to shed our clothes when I’d have to leave to drive the thirty five miles back to my parent’s house. The night it finally happened we’d watched a movie like we always did, our knees touching in the theater, our hands accidentally brushing one another as we both reached for popcorn at the same time.

When the movie ended this time, he asked, “Are you hungry?”

I said. “No. Not really.”

I was starving, but I’d had enough dilly dallying and was ready to get it over with. Not because I was intensely attracted to Jason II, because I wasn’t, or that I was in love with him, because I didn’t even like him, really. He didn’t read, or listen to cool music, or talk about philosophy. He listened to hip hop, and had a blanket with a southwestern print draped across his couch. But he was there, and willing, and had a room of his own.

We went back to his place as usual. Even though he was a senior and I was a freshman, looking back, it’s clear that he wasn’t much more experienced than I was. Sitting on his couch, we listened to terrible, mid ninety’s club music in front of a muted nature show. He was kissing my neck while I watched a lion ripping the throat out of a wildebeest. We went through the motions of our standard mating ritual. I talked non stop nonsense as his hand crept up my thigh until it rested between my legs and I froze.

“Why’d you stop talking?” He asked, smiling.

He was khaki, a fraternity, a polo shirt. But I let him kiss me anyway.

When he took off his pants, his underwear were so soaked with precum that I thought he’d already ejaculated. His penis was short and sort of pyramid shaped, with a thick shaft and tiny head. I wasn’t sure if I should touch it or not, but he seemed to expect me to, so I did. It was warm and sticky. He pulled my own pants down and took my penis in his hand and I gasped again. It was the first time someone else had touched me and it was scary and thrilling at the same time.

“Let’s go back to the bedroom.” He said.

After three weeks of shedding our skins I was ready to finally slither into one another’s systems. I watched him sliding on a condom and covering it in lube with a certain detached curiosity. I looked back over my shoulder on my hands and knees in front of him, clueless as to what I was supposed to do. When he slid into me with no preamble, it hurt. I inched up further and further on the bed until I reached the headboard and could go no further. I stared at the red numbers on his digital clock until they were burned into my brain so that I could see the after image of them when I closed my eyes.

The Prêt-à-Porter soundtrack was playing as he rammed himself into me. To me that was the worst part, not the pain, not the lack of feelings, but the fact that I lost my virginity to “Here Comes the Hotstepper” by Ini Kamoze.

Driving home afterward the sky was seven shades of gray whether my eyes were closed or open. Traffic lights stretched across rain swept streets, blood red like a baby’s scream. I had to remind myself to breathe, to drive when the light turned green, thinking over and over, “What was that?”

It felt like the bones of butterflies were turning to dust in my stomach. My insides ached and I felt like I was full of some gray and burning sediment. All I wanted to do was crawl into my own familiar bed and cry. I never wanted to do it again. The idea that this was what sex was, what adulthood was, was devastating to me.

“Never again.” I repeated to myself over and over on the long drive back to my parent’s house like some pathetic mantra.

When I got home they were in the living room waiting for me.

“Who were you with tonight?” My mother asked, her eyes were already puffy and red, and her voice was stretched taut like a fishing line, accusatory.

“Sara,” I’d answered, cautiously. I knew something was up, guessed what it was, and knew it wasn’t something I was ready for.

“That’s not true.” My mother said. “Sara called looking for you.”

I cursed my dumb luck. Sara had always been my alibi on the nights I’d spent cramped on Jason II’s couch, and usually I’d let her know what I was up to, but on that particular night she was out of town and I hadn’t expected her to call. I was uncertain what to say, trying to think up some convincing lie to explain where I’d been.

“Who is Jason?” My mother asked.

“No one.” I said. I was in full panic mode, and there was nowhere I could go, no place to run, nothing I could do but stand there.

It all came out then. A girl I’d gone to high school with had seen me go into the gay club one night and had told my cousin, who told my aunt, who told my mom. My mother had gone into my room and found Jason’s name and number written on the back of a cocktail napkin inside the drawer of my nightstand.

“How can you let a man touch you?” My father asked in disgust.

I didn’t have an answer.

“Do you have somewhere you can go?” My mother asked.

“Are you kicking me out?” I asked, terrified. I knew they wouldn’t like it, but I didn’t think even my parents could kick me out for being gay.

My father intervened. “No one is kicking you out.” He said.

Instead, they took away my phone. They forbid me to leave the house except to go to school. I wasn’t allowed to talk to Sara, or to anyone. I was grounded. For the first night in my life, my mother didn’t tell me that she loved me before she went to bed.

At school the next day I had a calculus test. I bubbled in circles on my Scantron without looking at the questions in a room that was vomit green. In the parking lot, a black sports car hit my car, and because I didn’t see any damage, I told the driver not to worry about it. Only when I tried to drive again did I realize the axle was bent and I had to turn the wheel sideways to go straight. This didn’t stop me from driving 80 miles per hour home and getting a speeding ticket. I sat in my car on the side of the road with the red and blue lights reflected in the rearview mirror. Everything in the world was wrong.

For weeks, we sat across from one another at the dinner table in silence. My mother wouldn’t speak to me at all unless it was absolutely necessary. We went to the grocery store in silence, and to my grandmother’s house in silence. My father went away on a hunting trip, and it was just the two of us in a house, her wrapped in a depression quilt on a couch in the living room, and me in my bedroom with my headphones on, listening to The Cure, R.E.M., Tori Amos, Nirvana, and Nine Inch Nails, finding escape where I could.

One day Jason II called and my mother answered the phone.

“Never call this house again.” She said.

I never heard from him again.

“From now on you’ll act normal.” My mother said, still wrapped in a quilt on the couch, red eyed and sniffling. “From now on you’ll be normal.”

But I wasn’t normal. I was a hurt, feral thing, rejected by the people who were supposed to love me unconditionally. I stumbled from relationship to relationship, interspersed with one night stands, all looking for the love that I didn’t get from the people who had mattered. I graduated from college and found myself adrift, going from job to job, city to city. From Austin to Los Angeles to Seattle to Portland to Chicago to New York City. I was always on the move, searching night scenes for love leaning against a bar room wall, on an internet chatline, on an app on my phone, in coffee houses, and used bookstores. Nothing else mattered except filling this overwhelming desire to be desired. My life became full of gray, cubicle days, and black, strobe lit nights. The cities changed, but the scenery was always the same.

New York City was as far as I could get from my childhood home in rural Texas. But designer clothes and subway cars could never dilute the country blood that pulses through my veins. Despite years spent carefully removing any trace of an accent, despite my travels, the foreign films and novels, the exotic restaurants I visited to try to exorcise my country upbringing, the skinny boy from Texas is always there, wide eyed and trembling. All I have to do is close my eyes when I’m on the subway and the city melts away, is replaced by a childhood of mobile homes, windmills, rusty cars on concrete cinders in the overgrown lawns of the neighbors’ houses.

I howl. Am howling, silently at the gym, in my apartment, in my cubicle at work. Padding along on my furry feet. Solitary. Hungry.

Back in Jason II’s apartment, twenty years ago, the night I’d lost my virginity and my parents had found out I was gay, throbbing and sore, carpet burned and cathartic, I spilled a glass of wine on his nightstand. He said not to worry. He’d clean it up. It wouldn’t stain. And I knew that it was true. There was no mark of it’s passing. Just a shirt on the floor that smelled like him, an empty glass, and one less claim to innocence.

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.

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.”