That’s How You Do It
It was very life-affirming, this Non-Normative Sex Fetishists meeting. It seemed that at any moment we’d start unironically singing “Kumbaya.” You could bounce a dime off the group’s solidarity.
We were in a loosely-defined circle in the basement of Our Mother of Endless Mercies, bravely exposing ourselves to deluges of positivity. We listened to each other’s stories, effused affirmation through our pores, and craned our necks and looked around, our gazes heavy with meaning. To show our approval, we could snap our fingers or clap our hands or just rock back and forth in our chairs with ecstasy on our faces.
The small room got scary-loud with approval-showing, becoming like a jungle that was filled with animals in heat. Everyone was yelling and knocking against something. The compulsive masturbators were bleating like sheep, and their eyes rolled backwards into their heads. I felt like a plump sack of stinky meat soaking in a hormone marinade. I felt almost drunk.
I followed Mona’s lead to blend in and waved my arms energetically, like a furious man without a tongue. I could almost pretend that I belonged here. Mona was a punkish girl with black pixie-cut hair and a bicep tattoo of a space queen tearing off her brassiere and baring her breasts, which she said illustrated how she wanted to be. She was a modern woman, and there was a tattoo on her tailbone that said THIS GIRL DON’T GIVE A FUCK. Of course I couldn’t see that from where I was.
Soon, the screechy jungle sound subsided, and a thick, balding man stood and went to the center of the circle. He was very solemn. “I used to be repressed,” he said, using a deep, affected voice like an actor would use in a commercial for a twelve-step program. “I’d put a toothbrush up my butt,” he said, “and I’d want to end it all. I’d think to myself, Now you finally did it. You finally crossed the line. Nobody will ever be able to look past this. Because how could they? All they would be able to see was a man who couldn’t stop putting things up there, who’d even use his kids’ alphabet blocks.”
He paused, and when he spoke again, his voice was thick with emotion. “But that’s all changed after a lot of work. Now I can put anything up there. Toothbrushes. Wooden spoons. One time I even got a remote control up there. Then I got the hiccups, and I could flip between channels. Like hiccup, zap, hiccup, zap.” He bent over slightly. “Hiccup, zap.” He moved his hands in the air as if manipulating a TV antenna.
He talked about his butt’s elastic properties, and I closed my eyes. I felt Mona take my hand. “How are you feeling?” she whispered. My hand trembled.
“Not well,” I said. “Very not well.”
“You can step out.”
“I just need a moment.”
I stepped out of the room. Cool air hit the sweat under my armpits and fluorescent lights were over me, humming like old people. I was conscious of every small thing. The feeling resembled pain. I sat down in the middle of the hallway. On the floor were strands of black hair and fine dust crystals and imprints left behind by muddy shoes. There were crunchy bug bodies and faded A-plus stickers and even a tiny baby sock with a light purple heel. I waited for the world to snap back into place.
I heard gratuitous sounds of approval. Above me, the church’s weight shifted.
I went to the bathroom and rinsed my face with cold water. In the sink mirror was my bland reflection, embarrassed and cringing. What I looked like was square. That wasn’t a word that people used anymore. The people who had used that word were ex-hippies who now had comfortable and kombucha-drinking lives. They had gotten all their sex out of the way. What had they missed? They could die right now and regret nothing.
I went to the urinal and tried to go. When I was young and too nervous to go in public, I found that standing on one leg helped me because I stopped thinking about going and started thinking about keeping my balance. I stood on one leg and supported myself against the wall. Then I let go. I hopped. I still couldn’t go.
Mona and I had been trying, but nothing would work. Her patience was fraying. I could sense the progressing unraveling.
Over the years, I had been left with the impression that it was supposed to come naturally, like breathing, but then I learned that it was an art, a science, and a coordination of chi energies all at once. I read manuals. I watched how-to videos. I took a master class.
But when the time came, I was paralyzed and numb. We’d turn off the lights and lay in bed. She’d try her things, but I wouldn’t feel overcome. I wouldn’t even be able to make the appropriate sounds. A huge and malingering question slowly took over the room, and it was stealing all of the air.
I found comfort on her bedroom ceiling. It was covered with strange circles that were inside other strange circles. I imagined that I could see the shapes of men in them. They carried long spears, pursuing buffalo. They raised their spears and drew back their arms.
When I reached this point last time, I felt her looking at me. I looked at her and she looked away and then I looked away. She moved away and sat at the edge of the bed. I watched her back under the moonlight coming through the window. It said that this girl don’t give a fuck.
There were times to speak. There were times to listen. There were times not to make a sound and pretend that that you hadn’t come over. Her woven ceiling fan moved the air around the room. On her nightstand table, in a misshapen clay bowl, were her lucky pendants. A jade dragon and a silver owl.
Naked, she smelled like baby powder.
I avoided the mirror when I washed my hands. I splashed my face and dried my hands under the rattling hand dryer. Then I went out and walked around the basement.
I felt like I needed to prepare myself. I breathed in for three counts, then out for three counts. I imagined a broad blue sky and birds winging through it. Three counts in. Three counts out.
I found myself in front of a wall covered with iconography. A plaque said it was the Wall of Minor Saints. They were exceptionally minor because even I had never heard of them, and I was a seventh-generation Catholic. There were descriptions beneath each of the images.
There was St. Madeleine, France’s most beautiful woman. She had taken a vow of chastity and refused overtures from the King. Her picture showed her being burned alive at the stake. There was St. Henri, who accidentally wandered onto the King’s hunting grounds under the daze of prayer. His picture showed him being torn apart by dogs. There was St. George, who castrated himself in a demonstration of piety. His picture showed him standing in a pool of dark blood, holding up his member to the sky.
I wondered if I could convince the people in charge to put me up there. I had sacrificed enough.
The group thundered their approval. The sound was huge and endless, and dust fell from the ceiling. I imagined a swarm of knights storming an old English castle. I waited for the sound to fade, and then I went back into the room.
Mona was talking. I came around the outside of the circle and took my seat. I listened to her. She told them the whole thing. You had to tell them everything and see their reactions. That was how you stopped feeling ashamed.
“I like going down on people,” she said. “I do it whenever I want. I do it because there’s a desire in me, and it won’t stay quiet. When I’m out, if I see someone and I feel I want to do it to them, I’ll ask. Fear is only a word. I love people. Stranger, friend, men and women. I like both.” She had a voice that was smoky and strong. It was a rising and falling voice. She looked at me, and then she looked away. “But I don’t like it when they touch my hair.”
Sometimes, when she drank, she told me exactly the kind of man I was, but then she cradled my head in her lap and said that she didn’t mean it like that, baby. I was crazy about her, but sometimes I felt that she could easily ruin my life.
That night, we decided to try again. We were drinking to get good and loose. We took off our clothes to help things along and passed a bottle of Jack back and forth. A nature documentary was playing on the TV, and a rich male voice was explaining that male seahorses get pregnant instead of the female.
“I’d prefer that,” she said. “I wish you were the one who’d get pregnant.” She was sitting at the other end of the couch with her feet tucked under her. She looked like some careless nymphos. The space queen on her arm was looking directly at me.
“I can’t get pregnant,” I said.
“Obviously,” she said, still looking at the TV. “But if you could, you’d be the one worrying.”
“I’m always the one worrying.”
“It’s a different worrying,” she said.
The television screen showed a seahorse floating in a bath of clear water. It looked like a dragon, with a gnarled, scaly body and a distended belly. The rich voice said that the male was nearly ready to give birth to nearly two thousand babies. I didn’t believe it. I just couldn’t imagine it.
The seahorse’s body began to seize, a sudden jerk, a tender quivering. It arched straight out, and its belly grew violently black. It twisted from side to side, like it was holding tightly something that was trying to get away. It was trying to leap out. It was a demon escaping.
A seam opened along its belly. It shook and shot out pale yellow noodles. They came in bursts. Its body heaved and shot out hundreds and thousands of those pale yellow noodles. Dazed, they drifted around like particulate matter. All that life, and you couldn’t tell one from another.
After the seahorse shot out the last ones, it drifted down to the sandy floor. The rich voice said that, after the birth, the male needed to rest. But nature wouldn’t wait long. Before the end of the hour, the female would impregnate the male again.
“Maybe you’d prefer that too,” I said.
“You make this so serious.”
“I’m a serious guy,” I said. “This is serious business.”
She looked at me in a way that made me want to curl up into a ball. “You’re making me feel like a whore,” she said.
I looked at the ceiling. I scratched my neck, and then I looked at her. “I don’t what I’ve done to give you that impression.”
“Everything you do gives me that impression.”
“Well, that’s massively unhelpful,” I said. I picked the Jack off the table and drank it. The whiskey burned my throat. When I was finished, the furniture had a blurry shimmer, and I couldn’t find where the table really began. It took me a couple of tries to find it. My hands were shaking.
“Are you drunk?” I asked her.
“I’m about ready,” I said. “Any minute now.”
I waited for something to happen, but I already knew that nothing was going to happen tonight. I felt hollowed out, like somebody came in and stripped away all the valuable parts. I was damaged goods.
Finally, I said, “I don’t think you understand that there’s a weight to thirty-five years of virginity. It’s settled into me. It’s me. That’s what I am.”
“The fact that you think you’re still a virgin after what we’ve done is just ridiculous.”
“I don’t think you understand,” I repeated.
She leaned forward and took the Jack, sipping it. They were thoughtful sips. We had nearly finished the Jack.
“My first time was Melvin Holdum in the back of my Pontiac. I was seventeen. There was a school dance and we wanted to fool around. One thing led to another. I didn’t think much of it. I know myself pretty well.” She drank the last of the Jack and set it on the table. Empty, it made a sound like a bell.
“I never think about it,” she continued. “Melvin had pimples and a beard like a goat. He had braces and kissed too hard. And what kind of name is Melvin anyway?” She laughed meanly. She was trying to amuse herself, but I could tell that she was unhappy.
There was the sound of wild dogs barking on the TV. We were in a snow-covered forest now. We were moving between the trees.
I went into the kitchen and brought out another bottle of Jack. I didn’t open it. I just wanted it to be within reach.
“All I think about is sex,” I said. “All the time. Ever since I was thirteen.”
“That’s the problem,” she said.
She was right, but how could you stop it? It was always there. Every time a woman opens her mouth, every time a man bends over, it was there. Every second, it was happening underneath a hundred million ceilings, all over the world. Yet, every time you did it, it was supposed to mean something to you.
You were with the women and when you weren’t anymore, they stayed with you for the rest of your life. They followed behind you like specters and when you go, you go with the twenty or thirty women you ruined. And that’s not supposed to make you pause?
The TV screen showed a gray wolf on a smaller, darker wolf. I couldn’t tell if it had mounted the wolf or if it was biting into its neck. The smaller wolf was yelping, high-pitched, like a dog you’d have as a pet. The longer I looked, the more convinced I was that it was trying to get away.
“That’s how you do it,” Mona said. She had opened the Jack and wasn’t really watching. She was drinking. She clumsily peeled the label off the bottle, and then she leaned over and stuck it to my forehead. It fell off immediately. “You just need to relax,” she said.
“But we aren’t just two dogs humping,” I said.
“That’s all we are,” she said. “Two dogs.”