The hour was late, so late that he could expect either to witness unquiet ghosts walking the halls of the hundred year old house or fetching harlots fellating donkeys on internet porn. Okay, “fetching harlots” is grandiose. But he had an education. He wasn’t some whatever in overalls with plaster on his knees. He was unhappy with his girlfriend and what else was there to do? Other than be a voyeur to a donkey at this late late hour. Or watch the ghosts walk. Or let the ghosts watch porn.
He ejaculated to the volume-down sound of braying. He realized that he’d reached a sort of low point and the aftermath felt exactly like eating a stick of butter. Or two. You just want to back away from your own saturation. To masturbate to a brief film about a pretty girl putting a donkey’s penis in her mouth and gagging explosively on half a pint of probably caustic semen means what about how one feels about either pretty girls or donkeys? But what a great word.
-But donkey should be an adjective.
His girlfriend, Gwenda, asleep downstairs, was a lawyer. Sleeping a lawyer’s off-the-clock sleep, her spare-time sleep. A fitness fanatic with a nice enough body but a not-entirely beautiful face. In fact she was plain. In some lights she was not even that. Let’s be frank. While her worked-on biceps and trim waist were no illusions, her substantial bust had turned out to be somewhat of a mirage when he’d unwrapped it, greedy hands trembling, unravelling the bulges into lots of cotton wadding and air.
-What was the name of that song about vaginal moisture? A big hit. Early ’60s.
There’s cheap porn for those who like women and expensive porn for those who don’t and plenty for those who aren’t sure. Very few are sure. Like almost everything, it’s funny when you think about it because, think about it, the point is, okay, you sit through a film, not always short, waiting patiently for the payoff which is basically some male (human or dog or donkey) ejaculating. The chowdery or birdshittish or gasoliney semen, emitted by the spoonful or the cup. You’re saying you find this interesting.
Which is fine.
He was no male model but he was a lot better looking considering his gender than she was considering hers. In fact he was the best looking man she’d ever touched. Which may not be saying much etc. His relatively good looks were not an issue, initially, or, that is to say, they were an issue but in such a way that Gwenda benefitted from it. Call it Affirmative Action of the heart.
When he first saw her wearing that camelhair coat which rhymed almost religiously with her waved and buttery hair in the muted light of the subway tunnel under Christmas carols and timed festive electronics and everything. That stuff in the air called childhood. He knew straight off she wasn’t what you’d call attractive but she was something, in the aspirational competence of her effects, the hairshape and lipthickness and bustle-swell of the coat in its bosom, promising so much, though what, exactly?
-Da Do Ron Ron.
He used his sly system of saying hello to open things up. His system was I mock myself internally like Burt Reynolds while doing it but also he was quite serious in using that mustache voice he used that usually worked though the smallest part of him (the part he thinks of as his original infant humanity) felt silly. Hammy. But it worked.
-People are afraid of great actors.
It took him weeks to admit everything about her actual face to himself. By the night of full disclosure, when the makeup had grazed or sweated off and the roots had grown in and the wave had frazzled to lustreless wires, he was already, however, dangerously intrigued. He wouldn’t say smitten. Smitten was the word he was saving. “Smitten” he was guarding in a box.
-He had trained himself to speak in a lower register.
-He tweezed his eyebrows regularly.
When he made the decision to give off certain signals indicating he wouldn’t be averse to becoming the thing labeled boyfriend in her phonebook, it was with this in mind: that looks aren’t everything. And they aren’t. Weren’t. Are they? Were they? After the seven different kinds of hell his many moviestar-model-grade girlfriends had put him through, from his eighteenth year clear until the year before the night he pleasured himself watching a harlot giving pleasure to a donkey, he had come to the conclusion that a sweet-natured, forgiving and generous personality would be a welcome change in a bedmate.
No more dragon ladies, ice princesses, black widows or femme fatales. From now on: plain Janes and peppermint Patties. The Girl Next Door in an ugly suburb. He felt a sudden hunger for a lot more gratitude and much less condescension and coming to the conclusion that a ‘homely’ girl was the answer to his prayers felt like growing up. A Bar Mitzvah of sorts.
“Finally,” he thought to himself, as he kissed Gwenda’s wounded little underbite face that very first time after that sappy movie, a snowflake intact on her eyelid as he drew himself near, “you’ve learned your lesson.”
The smell of pine needles. His smile stuck shark-bulged in a blue ornament.
Things were great with Gwenda for the first few months. She laughed at many of his jokes and treated him to a detailed recap, every evening, of the day’s rich legal adventures. He discovered that during sexual congress on her living room carpet at a certain distance and angle from the floor lamp in muted light in the missionary position she resembled Meg Ryan, a famous actress of the era, but only in his suffused pre-orgasm deliria. This was a pleasant discovery.
He met her sister (slightly better looking but still rather homely though he did toy with the idea of etc), did most of the cooking, accepted expensive gifts and wondered if getting Gwenda pregnant was out of the question. He was toying with the voluptuous thrill of throwing his life away. The only thing that gave him serious pause was the thought of an ugly baby. Half-ugly at best. Accusing him with Gwenda’s small eyes and high forehead.
One night, after the snow melted and all the childhood had vanished from the warming air, they fought rather passionately over something disproportionately trivial and she revealed herself, like a rainbow-colored cocoon splitting to reveal a fearsome black butterfly, as a strikingly effective bitch. Ugly faces are better at bitchery than beautiful ones, regardless of what the beautiful prefer to believe. He gazed upon the mask of her sarcasm-twisted features and thought: “She’s a bitch and she’s ugly,” and that’s when it dawned on him.
He said, “Do I look fat in this?” and her silence spoke volumes.
Perhaps I’m hallucinating on a grand scale, but when I go out in public and observe human beings at work and at play, I don’t see very much of this post-gendered world of yours that you defend against my arguments, as hard as I try (even squinting). For the most part, I see women/girls dressing up and/or pushing prams and I see men/boys horsing around, ogling cleavage, and scratching themselves. When I attend ‘fancy’ functions for people with better jobs and higher educations, I see women dressing up…and men ogling cleavage (and very discreetly, from time to time, scratching themselves). My married friends are either sexually bored-with-each-other and stable, or cheating like minks and totally comfortable indulging in passionlessly vicious verbal punch-ups in front of company.
I’m not saying I’ve never observed this state of PC Dyad Grace you seem to be eulogizing with your pep talks…I’m saying that PC Dyad Grace as I’ve observed it is generally larval, and, approximately six months into a relationship, moults its golden skin to become the twin brown moths of the lovable slob and the tolerable nag (before time gradually prefixes each adjective with an ‘un’ and an ‘in’, resp.)
The day I stumble into a happy, egalitarian, romantically sex-healthy relationship, I’ll lose about 70% of my friends, who will rightly consider my new found bliss to be a freakish and unforgivable betrayal. As post-humanly above reproach as my mate and I will be to each other, I’m hoping he’ll still get an atavistic thrill out of the fact that I can twist open jar lids, without much effort, that he couldn’t dream of budging. And me? I’ll get an atavistic thrill out of the way he looks dripping naked and pink after a shower. Anyway, you may call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
Hope this letter finds you safe, warm and very dry,
Ain’t college life wonderful?
(The sarcasm of a spoiled brat, I know)
Thursday evening I am on my way home from the studio. It is about 9pm. Half a block from the front door of our apartment (the large one, the old one with high ceilings; the one Ingrid inherited from her father), I pass a figure, a noirish cartoon of mercury arc light and shadow wedged in a doorway, a little guy with a cell phone, Italianate, pleading in heavily accented German, “I love you, I love you, please…please…tell me what I must do.” It’s a scene from a movie with subtitles I’ll never decipher and sub-plots I’ll never know. And yet it’s the oldest movie on Earth. It’s pre-Colombian, pre-Christian, pre-English.
I love you, I love you… please…
I’ve been there, I’ve cried for love, I’ve never pleaded, I’ve never begged for it, never offered to die or kill for it, but I have cried real tears, tears that felt like they were cut right out of the jelly of each eye with a dull blade but always I was shrewd enough to know that begging never helps. Some of my ex-girlfriends, the ones who no longer speak, who don’t answer my calls and letters, who duck me on the street or actively propagandize against me five, ten, fifteen years after the fact might call me a womanizer. Simply because I didn’t stop at any of them in the long search for my happiness.
What am I, a ball on a roulette wheel?
I’m sure they ascribed it to a short attention span, or adolescent sexual whatever it is, the fact that I often showed signs of restlessness a month or two into it, but nothing could be further from the truth. Both parties (I sound like old Gwenda here: the plaintiff and the defense) are well aware when the fit isn’t right, but only one party ever seems to have the will or the courage to admit it and utter the magic phrase that will dissolve the contract.
-I love you, I love you…please…
The desperation in that guy-in-the-doorway’s voice: I’m haunted by it. It could power an Edward Albee play. A gypsy camp. The energy of an ego collapsing. He reminds me of what it’s like to be young, although he isn’t so young, he looks a bit like Peter Lorre, but being young is being desperate. In my middle-aged wisdom I know too well that if things don’t work with a woman, she isn’t The One and if she isn’t The One, why bother wanting her so much? The answer to that mostly rhetorical question, speaking from experience, is prestige. Prestige plus sexual intoxication, although sexual intoxication is so closely circuited with prestige that it’s technically inaccurate to list them as separate values. Who knows what Peter Lorre’s girlfriend…or ex-girlfriend…looks like. We can’t say with any certainty what his scale of reference is but it’s clear from the force of the pain in his pleading that this woman is a commodity he desperately wants to keep. A beautiful woman is a poor man’s Porsche.
You’re wrapped around each other in bed, auras blended, indulging in sticky warm penetrative intercourse. That high clear chime of addiction you detect above the mechanical comfort of humping is the thrill of possession. You’re thinking, as you pin her gently by the wrists, decorating her perfect face with a garland of worshipful kisses, “She’s mine, all mine, only mine.”
-Maybe she’s a 19 year old girl from the suburbs of Minnesota who looks like Grace Kelly and pees with the bathroom door open, charming you with her bravery. Because what if?
-Maybe she attends a tony hairdressing academy where half the instructors are snobby vain homosexuals who walk as though they’re wearing capes and the other half are aging heterosexual operators, sinewy-single and baked-looking, Roy Scheider in “All That Jazz”.
-Maybe they all hate you, you, a poor boy, a college boy who drives a fifteen year-old rust-scabbed hatchback and owns just three pairs of scuffed shoes who gets to fuck this flickeringly cinematic blonde and all they can do is glare when you drop her off in front of the academy on a brilliant August morning with a lingering kiss plus nuanced references in posture and smirk to sexual taboos that were breached the previous night.
-Or maybe that morning.
-They glare through the green glass walls of the provincially fancy, faux-Manhattan wellness and hair salon and if they could know that you and she had spent the summer in a menage-a-trois with your most recent ex, a tall brunette with cut-glass features and a mild gas problem, a heretic with something to prove in her second-hand suits from travelling salesmen who ranged from Iowa to the Dakotas to Missouri and Illinois, all three dancing together to Bauhaus in neoned clubs and sneaking mathematical fucks in the toilet, they’d hate you even more.
-You want to call me “sexist” because it will feel good.
-We all want to feel good.
Like many young Bohemian romantics, I believed in an anthropomorphic Universe when I was too young to know better. I believed in a Universe that was both aware of my existence and concerned with the delicate work of guiding me with signs and nudges through the maze of its horrors and rewards. Like many middle aged men who have subsequently suffered the scarred disillusionments of common experience, I went from the comfort of my lyrical animism to the bleakness of abject disbelief almost over night: the ‘Universe’ became a vast black mechanical box of perfect coldness and harsh light and I was nothing but a molecule bouncing around in it.
-She’d do a mild kind of hotdogish fart and dare you to say something.
-He wrote none of the above. The above is an impersonation in a deep-yet-fey voice. This is still a third-person narrative. This is still Gwenda and this is my story.
From the age of nine, she’d adopted her Aunt Aggie’s husband Nate as the adult to listen to and emulate in general and follow around like his somber little potbellied squire. When she was free to do with her time as she pleased, she chose to spend it in Uncle Nate’s company. The comedy that she and Nate presented to anyone who might catch them entering a room together or walking up the street in tandem to buy the morning Tribune, two chins lowered and four hands in four pockets, was far from apparent to her at the time. This strange rapport with Uncle Nate, to whom she wasn’t even related by blood, was baffling to the adults in the family but clear enough to her, if not to Nate. Nate was the first person on the planet Earth who’d asked her opinion on an important issue and she’d appreciated that.
They’d been sitting on packing crates after lunch. Nate had come over to help another one of his wife’s sisters to move and his future shadow and his future shadow’s mother had been conscripted, too. It was a depressing little apartment they were gathering into boxes and the one to which all the boxes and furniture were going wasn’t even far enough away to play a good game of running bases between former and future front stoops. It was right next door in a long block of red brick buildings with green paint on the trim. The dented rain gutters and the fake shutters, screwed to the wall.
She was seated in what she thought of as a grownup slouch on a packing crate in a warm spring breeze from the open door when Nate, who was seated on the adjacent packing crate, reading a magazine while everyone waited for the caretaker with his pickle-reek to come and confirm on a checklist that no fixtures had been stolen nor walls violated by nails larger than a certain size and that working lightbulbs had been left in the bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living room sockets. Nate looked over his shoulder at her, obviously disturbed by something he’d just read.
“Let me ask you something, kiddo. Honestly. What does God want from us humans?”
Obviously, in retrospect, it was a rhetorical question. It tickles her now to think that her relationship with Nate (dead ten years next Friday) had been based, initially, on a misunderstanding: a nine year old’s misapprehension of the proper protocol for dealing with a rhetorical question. She’d taken the apparent request for input seriously, flattered beyond any previous value that she’d managed to experience, and worked on the problem with Jesuitical diligence all day, carrying boxes of silverware and small appliances and bags of linen out one door and right back into the next one like a robot, silent, frowning, lips very vaguely mobile with a secret symposium convened to address Nate’s question. At the end of the day, when every item in flat A had been transferred to identical flat B and the grownups were vetting the notion of ordering two or three large pizzas as an unprecedented treat, she approached Nate when they had a moment alone and said,
“He wants us to stop.”
“Who wants us to…?”
“You asked what God…”
Uncle Nate was genuinely impressed and so perfectly deserving of his new shadow that he suppressed his first impulse to get his wife’s or sisters-in-laws’ attention in order to announce, “This kid’s a damn genius! Did you hear what she just said?” He played it cool instead.
“Could be,” is all Nate said, with raised eyebrows, and from that day they were almost a father and daughter arrangement. Maybe closer than that. Like salt and pepper; snow and hot cocoa: Nate and his special little Gwenda.
-He taught her the surefire method for charcoal fires.
-He taught her that arm wrestling is all in the wrist.
-He taught her to think before saying thankyou.
-He taught her that Bruce Lee was genuine and that David Carradine was bullshit and that a faculty for detecting the difference could be applied to almost anything in Life.
-Why does Time consume perfectly happy children for the sake of producing all these wretched adults?
I once quipped to someone that suicide is a lot like smoking or drinking: if you don’t try either before the age of nineteen, you probably never will. But I didn’t know what I was talking about when I made that witty remark and there’s some evidence to suggest that the wittier the aphorism, the less it will actually apply to real life. It would have terrified me to know back then that so many years after the remark, I would have nothing and no one and no apparent reason to live. Despite my money; my professional success; my knowledge.
Burdened and blessed with the kind of intelligence that made me the little star of my grammar school and had me bagging college-level reading scores in fifth and sixth grade, I am living proof that while it may be the case that the moderately above average in intelligence have the world on a string, the freakishly gifted are in for tons of trouble.
I remember fresh workbooks were handed out in the first week of second grade, intended to last for half the school year; however, knowing no better, I completed every exercise in my workbook by the end of the day, oblivious to whatever it was the teacher was droning on about at the blackboard while I breezed through the (to me) elementary exercises. All the answers I had filled the blanks with were correct, but rather than being amazed, Mrs. Johnson was angry. And rather than feeling special as a result of my feat, I felt guilty and ashamed.
Any hope of ‘fitting in’ was lost long before that point, and so what it occurred to me to do was apply my intelligence towards money-making and a solid position in society.
-A photo of Gwenda at 15.
She had a mild crush (her only foray into what could have been a life-affirming lesbianism if only she were wired that way) on the girl who took the picture and wrote tons of poetry that summer.
a plum is waiting
at the center of the world
for just the right tongue
is a plum a plum
before you have eaten it?
or just a theorem?
this plum got warm in
the sun and smelled better than
every one of us
blue plums at midnight
these plums are famous
for never being those but
what if you mixed them?
this artist painted
nothing but plums until he
finally got one right
don’t pay me dollars
pay me in plums but just one
very lovely plum
la petite mort is
the state of brief amnesia
of the plum just loved
I cried shamelessly in the presence of the doctor and her very young trainee nurse, the first time in my life that I had let myself cry in front of strangers. Part of my blubbing was lack of sleep (the contractions came at 5 a.m.) and part of it was the pain I knew that my lover had gone through to bring our child into the late morning light of the sun. But most of it was mingled grief and gratitude about the distance I had come to the first day of the life I’d always dreamed of. With the circumstantial poetry of so many significant coincidences in this life, the birth happened on the first sunny morning in a months-long block of cold gray gloom. The tears in my eyes as I looked at her refracted brilliant sunlight. I had packed CDs for the birthing room that we never had a chance to use but, still, some delirious hybrid of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and Bo Diddley’s Little Girl blasted in my head as I wept and my daughter came forth and the Past made its exit with a blast from my beloved’s operatic screams and yes, yes, yes, our baby girl is beautiful.
-I am smitten.