Carlos made a move with his hand like he was tipping an imaginary hat, then walked on with a big cheese-eating grin.
When I got online later and started researching martial arts studios, I still hadn’t quite committed to be being a freak. I rationalized it to myself as being a defensive measure; I needn’t run screaming to any man’s magenta house if I had the powers of crouching tiger, hidden dragon up my sleeve.
There turned out to be three karate studios in the area – one in town and two in towns next-door. I went first with the furthest of the out-of-towners. Just in case anything untoward happened, I reasoned, it’d be easier to avoid a reputation.
The Crimson Orchid karate-do was tucked under a couple of offices in a kitchy downtown. When I got inside the first thing that hit was the smell of wood. The walls and floor were oak, and there were boards along the walls that some of the students were pounding against with their bare hands and feet. At one end of the dojo, a jumble of interesting-looking equipment was set up that looked like a more dangerous and metallic version of a kid’s jungle gym. At the other end there were a good number of chairs set up, and a writing desk with some neatly-piled notebooks. No one was sitting in the chairs, except a small dog with a white coat. I stared at the dog, unsure of whether I’d misinterpreted something I’d read online. Eventually, an encouragingly buff old man came up and introduced himself as the dojo’s Sensei. I shook his hand, then started talking about his dog. It turned out the dog belonged to one of the brown-belts on the floor. She spent so much time at the dojo she didn’t feel right leaving her dog by himself.
“So you allow some people to bring their dogs?”
“Well-behaved dogs, yes,” said Sensei. “Do you have a dog?”
I said yes. I said bringing her along would make things much easier, that she was very well-behaved and mature and would probably sit there on a chair looking straight ahead just like the other perfect little dog. Then I asked about the jungle-gym at the other end of the dojo. Sensei smiled. That stuff, he explained, was for sparring. This dojo, he was proud to say, consistently entered and emerged with honor from local and regional sparring tournaments. Some years they even achieved victory at the national and even international levels. This dojo placed a great emphasis on practical combat.
“But,” he said, “It all starts with the kata.”
I followed the Sensei’s instructions, partnering with a lithe redheaded woman who helped me stretch out my legs, putting bare feet on the inside of my ankles and pushing them out. If I was a freak I bet that would have bothered me – having her crotch pointed at mine, separated only by the rusty tension of my inner thighs. The redhead was chatty and her name was Karen.
The class started after we’d been stretching awhile, and Sensei put me in a group with two other beginners to learn a kata, which meant basically we had to do the same three moves over and over for the next half-hour. He seemed to think there was something important I should have been learning – some body compressing technique that would have made my moves stronger and faster – but I couldn’t get over how bored I felt. It wasn’t even a workout as far as I was concerned – my lungs weren’t burning by the end, and I couldn’t have seeped into a tantric bog if I’d wanted to, and felt my body.
It was more interesting after that. We broke into pairs first to use each other for body conditioning. Sensei had me partner with a broad-shouldered guy who had a black-belt and thin glasses. Thom, his name was. We stood at odd angles to each other and began by rubbing our arms together, stepping back and forth and hitting each other with our other hands.
It was really more graceful than it sounds; there was a pattern to our movements that required us to move in synch, like a dance, only much more strict. If I made the wrong move, the dance stopped, until I figured out how to fix it. If my mind started to wander, Thom told me to look him in the eye and not look away. If I didn’t hit hard enough, the black-belt would take my arm and force me to re-do the move, teaching me to push through initial contact, so the sound was a denser thunk than the surface smacking it had made. I got to feeling very intense, very intense, as I stared into Thom’s eyes, hitting him deeply and moving in instinctual response to every flicker of his limbs. His eyes were wells of experience, seeing my every incongruity, his body was hard beyond my ability to harm. He was better than me – we both knew it, there was no tension over that. He was responsible for keeping me safe and drawing me into the sphere of greatness with him. Don’t look away, I felt myself sweating, I felt my pulse ratcheting inside of me, felt the nerves trampoline-ing in my gut and knew for certain I would soon explode – from one end or the other. Thom stopped. I stopped too, looking at the floor and feeling blood gush into my cheeks. How could I escape those expert eyes, now, that surely knew I was this close to getting off and judged it safest to break off our interlude?
I breathed, finally catching on that the Sensei had been giving new instructions. I looked up. This was the reason Thom had stopped – to listen to him. He wasn’t looking at me and hadn’t noticed what had been building up inside of me. Sinsei caught my eye.
“You, new girl – how is everything sinking in? Need a break?”
I nodded, relieved, and got myself a drink from the washroom. When I came back, two other students were sparring in the middle of the floor, and the rest of the dojo sat at the edges of the room, watching, as the Sensei critiqued their battle tactics. They were both green belts, one a blue-eyed fellow with immaculate skin and the other a gorgeous Indian chick who moved like a scythe and seemed to have the upper hand.
“Stop, stop, stop,” Sensei breathed impatiently. “David. It’s not going to end the way you think it will. You know what it is you’re missing out there, right? You know why it is you’re losing?”
David shook his head, embarrassed.
“You don’t know where she’s hitting you. How is she beating you this badly, David? Listen up, all of you, because this is a terrible, terrible thing to miss. When someone puts his hands on you, what do you know?” Sensei waited. When no answer came, he leaned forward and answered himself. “You know where his hands are! I don’t want to see you missing this anymore, David – no more! You pay attention to where she is. When she hits you, you use it. You learn about her. You make her react to you. You’ve spent this whole time running away. How is this a fight?” David looked ashamed. Sensei sighed. “Go sit down,” he said, and by his tone I guessed this was an act of mercy more than reprimand. Sensei turned to where I had taken a seat on the floor.
“How about we put the new girl in there and see what she’s made of.”
Instantly, I felt my heart pop up in my throat. “Sensei?” I gasped. I just watched the girl in the green whallop the greenbelt boy black and blue. I did not want to be out there with her.
“Go,” he said – and said it in such a way that I found myself obeying as though there wasn’t any other option. I stepped into the center of the ring. Blackbelts standing at attention thrust a safety vest over my head and lassoed it behind me.
“That girl there is named Sam,” said Sensei. “New girl,” he continued, as they finished strapping me in. “There’s something I need you to know before you start. What you’ve seen, and what you’re going to see – this isn’t violence. Violence means violating someone or something. You come here, we will make you into an absolute pacifist. What do I mean by that?”
I shifted feebly. “You only hurt people in self-defense?”
“We don’t hurt people,” Sensei corrected. “Even when we fight them, even when we have to. Even if a man attacks you in the middle of the night and you break eleven of his ribs. You’re still not hurting him. You have a spirit – this is something real, something you need to accept and believe in. The man who attacks you also has a spirit. The man who tries to crush your spirit will be hurting his own on the way. So we do not let them crush us. We use our bodies here to serve the spirit. Where you see a violent person, you see a spirit that’s bursting from its body, leaving its animal writhing in agony. You hit the man who tries to get inside you, and that force of yours reels his spirit right back in. You put him in his rightful place, set him on a better path. Do you understand?”
I nodded, slowly. Sam wasn’t looking at me. I could tell by the ease of her shoulders that she was not even the littlest bit worried. She hadn’t noticed I was even there yet. I wasn’t sure whether I was really hearing words beyond my heartbeat or just imagining.
“Ok,” said Sensei. “Go.”
I stared wide-eyed at the Sam, waiting for attack. She held my gaze steadily, not making a move. I started forward clumsily, but I saw her watching my body and seeing where I was going, so I stopped short and turned, going at her from another direction. She didn’t get surprised, just kept watching until I’d nearly closed the distance between us. She popped backward into a comfortable horse-stance before I could get her and watched again as though on a sofa. When I got close enough this time, I was sure she’d use those crouching legs as springs and kick me in the chin, so I launched a kick at her middle. She swatted my calf aside, then reached for my belt and tried to pull me in. I kicked her with my other leg and jerked away. I couldn’t get to her.
“Enough,” said Sensei. “I see where you are, now. Very good.”
I wanted to ask him what he saw, but I had the sense that would be embarrassingly novice of me. I guess that was his business model, or something. He knew something about me right away, but he wouldn’t let me know what. He’d make me keep coming and keep paying for lessons and let out what he knew about me bit by bit. But he got me as a whole, in a glance. I was sure. I could feel it. I signed up anyway for lessons there, committing to four hours a day on condition that my dog could be there. If she couldn’t, I’d probably just take the hour-a-week class.
I brought Martha by the next day to see what she’d do; she gave the little dog a judgmental sniff, then settled herself down on the dog bed I’d brought and watched the humans beating each other for the next four hours with faint amusement.
* * *
I felt great after the long workout. I was ready and most likely had just been waiting for an obsession like this to come along. I didn’t have a boss or any time commitments at all, really, and all of a sudden the whole concept of fighting and working out was exciting to me. Working out made me feel good, in the moment, and then again afterward when the shower was over and the endorphins tickled my veins. It was like drugs, except that instead of getting smelly and weak I’d be getting sexier and stronger every day. Thank God I’d ended up fighting the bag lady, instead of making friends. If things had gone the other way I’d probably have gotten into heroin or some such.
I took Martha home and wrote and watched TV, and that was how every day went after that. Sparring and working out all the time made me into a cocky, able fighter pretty quickly. Sensei liked that while I was there it was all I did; I noted a small glint of relish in his eyes when he spoke to me and watched me spar. After class one day he pulled out a number of applications and had me sign up for four or five weekend tournaments. At this rate he predicted I’d have a brown belt inside three months.
The next day I looked at the clock and felt a block pop up in my mind when I considered going to the dojo. I didn’t have to go. I could, if I wanted, just go for half the class today, spend the extra hours facebook-liking the typical pictures of owls and beaches that sprawled across my newsfeed. Or I could watch a movie. It had been forever since I’d watched a movie. But Martha kept standing by the door and looking at me like I was crazy, so I couldn’t watch the stupid movie in peace or relaxfully keep my feet up. I grabbed her leash, muttering things. Maybe if we just walked around the block, she’d get it that our old routine was changing.
It was dark out and rainy, but I didn’t notice this to be unpleasant. I’d kicked the heads off three dandelions growing out of sidewalk cracks before it occurred to me that I might not want to go to karate anymore. I completed the walk with Martha, then unleashed her in the house and went out again looking for a bar.
I settled on a hole-in-the-wall looking joint with one motorcycle out front and another pulling in just as I was parking. All the rain and dark outside gave a blustery expression to the red strobe lights and fries-smell leaking into the lot, like the place meant to be strange and exhilarating but instead had the look of a red-hearthed cottage by the winter sea with its door swinging open and closed. The guy getting off of his motorcycle moved fast until he got just ahead of me, and then he turned his head and smiled, reaching for the door. I stopped, feeling my coat for my phone, and pretended to be delayed with an important text exchange until the biker gave up being friendly and went in by himself. I kept outside pretending to text another minute; this wasn’t going to be like the dog park, when I had to get myself an indigenous escort to vouch for my belonging there.
The biker from the parking lot had already settled into a barstool next to a crew of obvious regulars and had a cold mug in hand by the time I’d ended my exchange with the bouncer by the door – a smile of mine with the flash of my ID returned by his dark nod. It was early, and the place was relatively deserted, but the music bantered on and the bloody-lips smell of liquor had me senselessly delighted. The bartender raised a skeptical eyebrow to ask me what I wanted, so I shrugged. I was thinking, you want my money more than I want your crappy watered-down alcohol, it’s sure as fuck not on me to initiate the verbiage. I also thought, maybe he thinks it’s not his job, since he’s the dude and I’m the chick – like, maybe during nights and weekends he has a bubbly expressive waitress to actually sell his shit and he just has to stand there stoically pouring and maintaining an impression of stern control that all the regulars reinforce for him to curry his favor and garner free refreshments. Maybe now that it’s the early part of his shift and in the absence of a smiling yeswoman he just expects all of his customers to demand his attention like mens men or charmingly engage him, playing yeswoman to themselves. If I don’t say anything at all, he’ll have to break face and eviscerate the whole charade that says he’s in charge, proving that, in fact, the money’s in charge, and I have the money so, actually, I’m in charge.
I was looking at the bartender while I thought this, and I could see by a tic in his throat that he was becoming uncomfortable with my failing to help him. It was daytime – there was no one here but regulars and a random girl. How was he going to keep up the impression of having a scary exotic place to work at now? He cleared his throat, and I breathed, excited for him to drop a solicitous word to see what would happen to the bar and to his weak mirages.
“Pretty lady, let me buy you a drink?”
It was one of the regulars – bearded, too old for me – interrupting and ruining what was going on between myself and the stoic custodian of booze. The regular sidled over and made a wall with his arm where the bartender was standing so I couldn’t see him anymore.
“What’s your name, darlin’?”
He spoke as though with standard-issue politeness, but I could tell it was the bartender he was acting to rescue. No man with that amount of lazy in his drawl would have bothered leaving his beer to initiate something romantic.
“In answer to your first question – no.” I said, then swiveled in my stool so I was again staring at the bartender, through a hole in his regular’s arm. “I want a bloody Mary,” I said to him.
The regular stood for a second, shocked, then re-oriented himself around me on the other side, maybe to hide his failure from his buddies down the bar.
“That’ll be eight ninety-five,” said the bartender authoritatively, with a dead fix on my eyes, as though I didn’t already have my card in my hand and my hand extended. I shook the card a little, and he snatched it, not breaking his dead stare.
“That’s mine, Bill. Put it on me,” said the regular.
Bill glanced his way and gave a grunt, which I took to mean agreement when he tossed my card back without having swiped it anywhere. I watched him mix and pour my bloody Mary, garnish it with a sprig of celery and hand it to me. I removed the celery, then threw the drink into the regular’s face and watched with interest as he gasped and stomped and craned his head backwards, making it all dribble harder down his neck and onto the fringe of his nice black t-shirt.
“Now pour one for me, and put it on my card,” I said, shoving the celery into the empty glass before giving it a push that would have sent it sailing back to its caretaker if the bar was polished and nice. Instead it went five inches forward and stopped. Bill was gonna have to reach for it.
“What!!!” The regular roared, having stomped halfway across the room rubbing at his eyes as though his inability to see through bloody-Mary-mix also somehow necessitated his flailing around this much. “You stupid bitch!!”
I grinned, beside myself, as the regular man lumbered, howling, toward me again. I was ready for it. I’d seen already that what worked in their world of small imaginings to keep the gruff façade a symptom of heroism instead of barbarism worked because of network. Push on one, another across the room would respond, as though attached. Peer pressure kept them all in check, like teenagers, and that meant any one of them could be shamed; peel that one away, the structure of the system would collapse.
“Walt,” Bill grunted in alarm, as the bearded regular grabbed with hammy hands for the scruff of my neck.
I laughed a bit. I knew all about Walt now. I knew his boundaries were beyond his own control, and that all it would take was a small push to send him toppling over the precipice of honor or reality. “You know,” I remarked, imitating Sensei’s condescending tone. “When you put your hands on someone else, they know where your hands are.” I erased the girly smiles from both my eyes when I said that, and made my eyebrows low, so he’d think he had to stand his ground because of all the people who were supposed to have his back. He was slow, but eventually he was coming to the conclusion that he couldn’t fight with me and be a hero, and he’d have to act too big to take me on. I watched his wheels working, snagging, working, and then at the very last second when he could possibly change his mind, I cracked my head back and down, whipping my hair at eyes face and flashing him back to our drink-in-the-face shame and shock of a moment.
Today I wouldn’t know karate, wouldn’t fight him like I’d been trained and groomed to do. It was Greg wielding all the force of meat and rage versus me and just my superior sense of direction, and I was sure I’d win; his hands went from my collar to my throat and he gripped and shook me once to clear the hair out of his way. I waited for his face to be open to mine, waited for a moment like I’d had with the woman outside of the store, where there was no fear between us and our yings and yangs went snapping at each other, cleaving out each force but power, rolling me back to laugh through egregious ecstasy.
But no – there was the biker who’d tried to walk me in, now intruding on my plans to make the patriarchy crumble in incident to masturbation. Biker-guy was throwing Walt off and standing between us, filling up the hero-vacuum that existed because of Walt’s burst cowboy vision of himself. Walt looked to the regulars for support, and they looked by instinct at the bartender, who averted his eyes right away to the bouncer who was already crossing the room to the obvious relief of everyone but me, making loud and tough and general demands to all of us to settle down.
“Why don’t you get out of here,” said the bouncer to the biker, after considering the three of us for a couple of seconds. The biker nodded, and put an arm around my back, guiding me alongside him. I let him, giving myself as far as the parking lot to decide whether I’d continue to foster his hero-gets-the-girl presumption. He was a young guy, about as old as me, and I could feel him bouncing beside me, high on endorphins and pleased at the upgrade to his self-image. That was my buzz he was enjoying.
We reached the parking-lot, and we reached his bike, and he looked at my car across the way. “Listen,” he said. “I’d hate to leave that here with everyone inside so worked up. Can we meet for dinner in an hour?”
“Sure,” I said, without thinking too much after all. His giddiness was catchy.
His name, he said, was Greg. Greg suggested a place I’d have figured to be way out of his price range. I went home and dressed again, nicely but not in my nicest, and way less slutty than my sluttiest. I found Greg sitting at a candlelit table, looking conspicuously nice and equally slutty, standing to greet me as I arrived. I wondered whether, if I was him, it would have bothered me to remember that my date had recently and for no reason tossed a bloody Mary in someone else’s face. Greg didn’t mention it at all. He still seemed buzzed from his part in the drama; he practically giggled as he explained in boring detail all about his life as a law-firm lackey. I managed to convince him all of me was there by mirroring expressions and enthusiastically re-stating opinions, leaving most of my neurons free for re-investment in bigger, fancier thoughts. Like, figuring out how long it would take for my strange new source of lust to burn itself away. I still had no idea, for example, when or why I’d decided to get into a bar fight, but I was sure the fight was the only thing that drew me to the bar. I’d noticed the guys there in a way that wasn’t useful except for fighting – noticed their connections, putting pressure at the faults to see what held. They were lame and old – tribe was all they’d had to defend them. It wouldn’t have mattered if I hadn’t been out to start some kind of war.
And here in the restaurant, I could see it still, the force of tribe – acting as some tangible agent against us all. The waiters moved like bees through their secret language. The diners crowded around their tables, their arms opened to each other and closed to those outside their little spheres. When one moved, the rest followed, keeping each other attached with waiting looks and matching pace. There was one guy across the room, with his back to me. By the angle of his table against a projection of brick, I couldn’t tell whether he was there with someone else. I watched the movements of his head, trying to see his motions as those of a single man, then trying to see them as the motions of someone in a conversation, to see which way made sense. I watched the ripples by the back of his jaw, and at first they looked like the slack motions of someone speaking, but they also, at times, looked like the elastic decisions of someone chomping food.
“I should really send her a thank-you card,” Greg said, and waited for me to laugh. He was talking about an ex-wife, I recalled with a bit of effort. It was due to her vindictive lawsuit and the loss of his beloved pet, Cowboy, that he’d begun to study law. He figured this path was leading directly to his future as a rich-and-powerful guy with one of those filthy-sexy-slutty secretaries everybody wanted.
I wanted to ask what kind of animal Cowboy was, again, but that would have made it too obvious I hadn’t been paying attention, so I stopped being interested. The man at the strangely angled table had his face turned sideways, toward the brick wall, so I could see a little of his mouth curving down. His shoulders were relaxed; he hadn’t any intention of moving. Either he was alone, or his partner had said something so terribly underwhelming as to make him forget she was there.
I liked the idea of him either way – eating alone. That was proof of a man who couldn’t be shamed – someone, if I met in a bar in the middle of the day, I couldn’t lead astray. The only way I’d get his hands around my throat would be to convince him I really needed it for the good of my health.
“Any man ever disrespects a woman in my presences, he’s gonna have to answer for it,” Greg announced, looking at me. For a second I thought he was reading my mind and reprimanding me for having daydreams about ditching him to lure strangers into street-fights; I prepared some off-the-cuff stabbing insults to return for his antagonism, then remembered Greg had no superpowers and was just finally angling to talk about his heroic intervention earlier.
“I really appreciate what you did for me,” I told him, lowering my eyes in observance of his sense of honor as the waiter arrived bearing entrees. The world has to go on working the way we expect it to most of the time. Otherwise all our time would be wasted with getting to know each other instead of just doing things that feel great.
“It’s the way I was raised,” Greg said, loudly, chuckling, drunk. “I grew up in all the rough parts of town, so I got to be really good at fighting.” Greg followed this with a soothing laugh to assure me that I was in no danger. I giggled while doing the wide-eyed glimmering thing you’re supposed to do to make a man feel nice who’s been of service to you. That set him on talking about all the ways he was a defender of innocents in his day-to-day life. I liked it at first when he was talking about breaking peoples’ faces, but his story-telling was vague and I had an idea he was lying much of the time. I wouldn’t have minded if his imagination wasn’t so dull – I knew that plastering over his fantasies with my own would be a far better use of time. I toyed around with ideas for making something sexy and gloryful of his wreaking-vengeance-against-the-man-at-the-circus-who-mocked-a-child-for-crying-in-fear-of-the-lions yarn, but before I could land on anything solid he expanded it to include his law-firm, so that the vengeance he was wreaking was as boringly litigious as it was glaringly fabricated.
I gave up on including Greg in my fantasies then, and looked back at the stranger against the wall who had gone out to eat by himself. Maybe there would be a chance, someday, to get him alone and onto the field of battle against me. Bodies aside and doomed as I might be to lose to him, we’d be driven by sheer force of fervor to engage, to join not mere lust to lust but urge to urge for combat. My eyelids had a heaviness all of a sudden – the good kind of heaviness that comes when your eyes roll back in your head and you’re still awake.
“Uh-huh,” I murmured smoothly, smiling at my date without making my eyes focus on him. The silhouette of a lonely stranger took up my mind’s vision, weighing on my faculties like a pillow pressing down. I felt my fingertips tremble from the effort of seeing it as I reached for my water glass. Taking too long to drink, I let unsteady breaths fog up the shining facets inside. I noted offhand that Greg had gone quiet and sent a loose stream of chatter into the air above our caviar.
“Yes. That’s the way to do it. You’re right. Good things come to those who assert themselves.”
“Yeah?” Greg breathed.
“Hells yes,” I said, then forgot about Greg because, all of a sudden, the mystery man with his back to me was standing – leaving his crumpled napkin on his plate. This would be it, then – the culmination of his meal, our moment of truth and triumph. He would turn, his eyes would meet mine. It might be curiosity that bonded us. It might be hate. It wouldn’t be any weak or dense, condescending pretense – we’d know each other with a brutish, banal, incurable honesty where we stood and sat, the better to exist thereafter.
“Yes,” My hiss escaped me as I leaned forward, ready to catch that man’s face with my eyes.
“You like that?”
I started; Greg’s hands had taken mine under the table, jerking me forward even more so the insides of my elbows crushed into the table’s cloth-draped edge. His voice had gone sly and low, his tongue going over his teeth as though he thought we shared some context. I remembered vaguely now what the conversation had turned to after he’d started talking about his job – how he’d offered me a position at his imaginary future law firm and then begun explaining my secretarial duties in suggestive bad grammar. I smiled at him, like my mind was all completely his. Our table was too wide for us to be holding hands between our knees; he had to lean so far forward to pull it off that his shoulders were touching the tablecloth, and now his eyes were grazing the blouse I’d worn over a lacy non-push-up bra – the kind that draws attention to nipples sticking out. Which mine were, still, and my arms pulling forward pushed my breasts together even more. There were goosebumps on me, from my daydreams and I had at some point in my deep contemplation pressed my hand to my mouth and begun biting down on my own lips.
All that good feeling was gone along with chance of catching the eyes of one interesting man; he was heading to the restroom, with his back to me again. When he came out if I wasn’t paying attention at the right moment he’d pass by me and leave. And he’d be facing my table, one single man among a stream of single men leaving to return to their tables or exit the establishment. How would I know him? I’d spent all this time staring at the back of his head.
This was better for my dreaming, I told myself. Our meeting would be like the one with my bag lady, uncrafted and original. More intimate than marriage would be the meeting of our eyes across the public bathroom’s threshold now – it would be our deaths, and not our lives, that we’d have spoken for. We’d vow right there to kill each other, someday, then watch our lives passing from each other’s shadows, always ready for the moment when our perfect storm should brew. If it came when there was no spark left to light each other’s passing, too late for either of us to claim the forfeit, it would be sad.
I imagined the one that died too soon would be me. It would be a different type of glory, to be wasted on the pavement for just no reason, but I would make it worth it. It would be a mugger, likely, or a gang of mugger’s, spattering my blood into the gutter. So I would hold onto the head thug before he got away, laughing and making him peer in to the gulf of death in my eyes so that he couldn’t help but see himself for who he was and shattered by it.
Greg’s entre and mine were gone when I realized we’d stopped talking. I’d answered a question of his and he was waiting now for me to tell him more – so it seemed we had come to the part of the night where he wanted to know about me.
“Oh, I write a lot of very different things,” I said. “But mostly, at the moment, what I tend to write is androgynous erotica.”
“Oh…really?” He leaned forward in his seat, intrigued.
Just at that moment, our waiter came around with a fabulous array of desserts on a cart, and as I was admiring the miniature cherries’ jubilee I happened to glimpse the stranger man passing by. I gasped – not out of fire-hearted vows-of-death euphoria, but in genuine disappointment. Because that man was just disappointing to look at in every regard. He was old, but old in the sallow, shaky way of bankers and not the good weather-beaten crusty-language way of anyone I ever wanted to meet. His eyes held water and sheltered contentment, and by his side, there strode, a lady. Plump and with bouncy curly hair, she looked as if she’d leached every morsel of vitality out of him. I didn’t know it was him until he was passing, and I saw the line of his jaw and turning saw the back of his head. It was him – I’d missed his wife around the angle of the wall, and taken his stillness for stoicism rather than rheumatism.
“Wow,” Greg said, nodding as though we were on the same page. “Those look good. What do you think?”
He was talking about desserts. I indicated the chocolate lava cake and Greg ordered two. He waited for the waiter to serve them and wheel the cart away before he started talking about me again.
“So what is androgynous erotica, exactly?”
“It’s erotica that happens with or without other people’s bodies being involved. Survivalist porn, for example.”
“Survivalist, porn? Like, stranded on a dessert island and figuring out different things to masturbate to?” Greg laughed.
It wasn’t quite an easy-going laugh – I could tell he was getting nervous, on the inside, perhaps wondering for the first time whether some part of me would be deal-breakingly different from who he imagined I was. I smiled and kept talking. “It’s not so subtle as that. There’s a piece I’m thinking of doing now, about ancient warriors. It may be a gay thing – I haven’t decided yet. There could be a peaceful tribe, overlooked, misunderstood, but one among them had a warrior heart. His enemies would hate him compulsively, by virtue of his tribe, until he engages a master warrior out alone in the wilderness. They’d be fighting over rains. They’d be fighting over wells. The guy from the peaceful tribe would find a new path for rain, and stand guard at it, waiting for his village to find him. They’ve got to claim it. The great man from another tribe would see him guarding it and laugh at him for thinking he could hold it all alone.”
“Fascinating,” said Greg, and I knew he didn’t mean it, because I’d seen his face pinch up when I’d said the story might be gay. He looked around quickly, obviously preparing to change the subject, and so I leaned forward and began to speak again, louder and faster. “Or the man from the other tribe might not be a great man in spirit – he might be a shameful, cowardly man who only had a big body, and he couldn’t comprehend the little man’s conviction, and he’d say to him, ‘Why guard it, only because you’ve found it?’ Only great men dare to take new wells, the weak men try to hide them so they can take them back when the great men have passed by. But the small gay hero stands alone, unarmed, guarding it like great men would. The great man’s tribe would begin to arrive, scout by scout, and look at him strangely, and laugh about it. They’d recognize him from the pacifist tribe and not make a move to kill him, because great men don’t fight small men, and you can see it in a glance when you’re from a warrior tribe, and there is no honor in downing someone smaller than yourself. The warrior group would arrive and laugh over the small man’s presence, but not do anything to kill him and assume he was delusional and that the well belonged to all of them by virtue of their strength. But then the tribe’s elders would arrive, and the chief elder, looking at the small man, would not laugh, and would not pass on, assuming that his mark on the well would suffice anymore to keep it. ‘We camp here,’ he’d say, as though the little man were great, and waiting for his tribe to catch up would have evened things out and made this a fair fight. Then the little man might begin to shudder. What if his kin did catch up? What if he’d changed their way of life forever? He’d never thought of fighting as an option, but what if there was no other now? And the whole course of history was changed by his being there too soon.”
Greg had tried to interrupt once, then politely backed away and resigned himself to listening. His lips smiled, and the corners of his eyes were pinching painfully. “That’s it?” He asked, when I stopped talking. “I thought you said it was erotica,” he said, and chuckled.
I stopped talking. I’d forgotten that some people were expecting sex right away when they heard the word “erotica.” “Yeah,” I said vaguely, digging into my lava cake.
I looked up at a silence after a few more minutes’ absent banter, and Greg was staring. I could tell that he was waiting for a hint from me as to where I wanted the evening to go – whether we’d both be going to one place or separating. Really, not much at all phased him in my regard. I wondered if he’d be the same way for a whole relationship or if this not even caring how psycho or strange I could be was his introductory offer in light of not yet having been laid.
“Ok,” I said to Greg. “I would like you to order me a wonderful expensive cordial. Then I would prefer it if you’d follow me to my house and take off all my clothes, slowly and sensuously. Feel free to throw them on the floor; they’re not my nicest clothes. You may then have sex with me, only if you promise to do a good job. If you do not do a good job, you may take me out to dinner again, but not have sex with me afterward. I will probably not tell you whether I approved until after we’ve had the dinner.”
“Well,” said Greg, startled. “Yeah, ok. That’s ok. Yeah. Thanks. I mean…” Greg blushed and tried to cover up the fact that he’d said thank-you, but I ignored all his excuses.
“You’re welcome,” I said.