Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
It had been eight or nine years since I had slept with a woman. The last woman I slept with had not been my wife, who had been raped and killed in the fall of 2008, but instead was a prostitute I slept with, or tried to, four years after her death. Before that, too, there had been one incident with my late wife's acquaintance, Barbara, who had come by regularly beginning two months or so after her death and with whom I shared several (too many) glasses of sherry. But ever since Elaine's death, the sight of a woman undressed left me destroyed.
Elaine and I had been married for four years; we had no children but had planned to start trying for one around the time she was killed. I was a freelance illustrator for biology textbooks, she was working part time at a private tutoring firm for high school students. She was walking to her car from a class she was taking at Valley College, where she was trying to get her masters in education. It was six at night, there were four or five men, and she was found in a reservoir two miles from the building in which she had had class. They were apprehended a few weeks later, and are now serving life sentences in prison. Those are the facts. I was, obviously, inconsolable for some time. There was our apartment, turning into a shell containing rotting piles of food, which I could not eat, and clothes, which I could not wash. I saw a therapist but more often than not could not manage to go to the appointments. My friends had been my wife's friends -- I could not bear to see them; it was like ripping off a scab. Barbara was the one to come to my door and demand that I open it. She brought me soup, books, 80's dance hall music that didn't cheer me up but distracted me from the dripping of my faucets. A few months later, after all that sherry, we ended up fumbling around on my sofa. Barbara had been my only friend for the past year or so, and had been extremely good to me. Yet kissing her on the mouth was like kissing a plate of smoked salmon; I felt disgusted and intrigued, in a scientific way, by the texture of her lips and teeth. I was reminded of any of the texts for which I might provide a diagram, a microscopic view of the taste buds and uvula and abscesses punctuating the big black nothing of the mouth. I pressed on, however, out of sheer loneliness and perhaps a fear that if I did not touch Barbara, I might retreat back into my fort of filth and broken plumbing and never touch another woman again.
She took off her brassiere first, from underneath her shirt, and that was when I first felt the lurch-stop sensation of unease. It was not identifiable, yet, as something violent or something that was capable of overwhelming me, but there it was nonetheless. Her shirt was on, but her breasts were visible in outline through it. I avoided touching them, but she pulled me on top of her on the sofa. I was pressed against them. Another jolt of unpleasant bile, or something, seized me and then disappeared. She pulled my shirt over my head. She drew it across the back of my neck and pulled me down to kiss her. It was then that I went mad. When I looked down at her, before our lips met, I saw Elaine -- but it was not Elaine, it was Elaine's body, or more specifically her head, which I had had to identify after it was recovered from the reservoir. Her lips were bruised and her cheeks were bloated. I blinked and Barbara reappeared. I slapped her face and bit her neck. I drew blood. She screamed and pushed me off of her, and I fell to the floor in a heap, saliva all over my face. I pleaded with her to forgive me, I hadn't known what had happened, and I told her about seeing Elaine's face superimposed on her own. She listened shakily to me, hand gripping the front doorknob, ready to bolt if I made a false move. When I was finished, she said that she accepted my apology, but I understood that to mean simply that she wasn't going to call the authorities. She left, and we never spoke again.
I attributed my behavior to some sort of post-traumatic stress; perhaps it had been too soon, I had been too drunk, and her aggression had reminded me of the rape of my wife. In any event, I was unsure how to proceed for the next year or so. Barbara was gone, so I was terribly lonely with no one to talk to. I looked up old acquaintances, went to several awkward dinner parties. Old friends set me up on blind dates which I left on their doorsteps after dinner with a peck on the cheek and whom I never called again. It was as if I had forgotten how to have a conversation -- I wasn't sure what to say when people asked how I was (I was fairly certain that they did not want to know); my stories seemed to linger without a point before stumbling to a stop and greeting a roomful of silence. I was incapable of lust -- or, rather, I was capable of it but it terrified me. Remembering Barbara's face and her white knuckles on my doorknob was my method of self-flagellation. To say nothing of what lust had done to Elaine. So it was not I, but rather my friend Richard, who arranged for a prostitute to come by on a rainy Tuesday in July. Richard was one of my fraternity brothers from college, whose number I had come across in a moment of desperation; I had not left my apartment in days, I felt covered by a film of dust that stuck to my skin. I was becoming a fossil. I explained to him that my wife had passed away some time before and I had abruptly found myself isolated and with nothing to do. He lived in the area and agreed to take me under his wing. When he brought up the idea of a prostitute, I was both insulted and unyieldingly opposed, but after a few more months of romantic and sexual paralysis I agreed to give it a try. I reasoned that a prostitute would be more understanding if something happened the likes of which had happened with Barbara, and I would have less to lose with a stranger than someone to whom I may have developed an attachment. Embarrassed to do it myself, Richard called a number in the paper and asked for a blonde, someone young, who was understanding. He told me that they asked him to elaborate, but he swore that he did not.
The name she gave me was Julia and she was small, about five feet, and had a shaggy bob of dyed blonde hair. She wasn't unattractive, but she wasn't pretty; she was dressed in a cheap-looking black strapless dress and gold, glittery shoes. I had stalked around my apartment for the better part of the day, dusting and arranging objects and putting condoms in the drawer by the nightstand. I had not bought condoms since before I married Elaine. I lit candles just to blow them out; worried that the prostitute would think I was a poof. I gelled my hair, I put on cologne, I sweated through my shirt and had to change it twice. Occasionally, before she arrived, I caught myself speaking out loud, trying to relax. It's going to be all right, I said, just don't do anything stupid. You're going to be just fine.
I poured us each a drink, because she had asked for one, even though she didn't look any older than 18 or 19. She strolled around my living room, swirling her gin and tonic in a short glass, looking at my mantle and bookshelves. She saw a picture of Elaine and asked if I was married; when I told her that my wife had passed away some years ago, she was considerably warmer to me. The charity in her face was endearing, sparking self-pity in me that made it easier to accept the situation as something that I was circumstantially entitled to. Or that was how I saw it. She finished her drink, sat next to me on the sofa and put her hand on my thigh. She asked if I was nervous, and I lied that I was not. She sprung into my lap a little too enthusiastically, straddling me, and kissed me while adeptly undoing my fly with her hands. She babbled endlessly, a stream of dirty words and commands and my name (which she had to ask me to repeat at one awkward interval, after I sputtered when she called me David, and then Dean). I wasn't listening; I was concentrating too hard on maintaining my already waning desire for her. It was then that she bit my ear, rather hard, more of a nip than a bite. Immediately my body responded, the hoary old flip-flop of the stomach I remembered from before Elaine's death, while my mind balked and stalled and worried over what I would do. It was too late to turn back; she wasn't a friend who could be reasoned with. She was a prostitute here to complete a service. She had been paid.
Soon we were on the floor, and her dress was off to reveal nothing beneath. I had my underwear on, something I had considered before she even arrived. If anything went wrong, I would want to be able to have the dignity of explaining myself while wearing my underwear -- I would give myself until the last possible second before abandoning them. That second was fast approaching; Julia was speedy and efficient. She tugged at the elastic of my briefs, and one of her long nails dug into my skin. Now it was not Elaine's face that I saw, but rather her voice as she screamed for her attackers to release her, and appealed to God, or anyone, for help. I bellowed for Julia to let go, and she scampered out from under me so quickly that I knew Richard had warned her that I was perhaps what he would describe as sensitive, or emotional, or shy. She probably thought I was a virgin, I realized. I had only wanted not to hurt her, as I feared I would. She held her hands in the air as if she were at gunpoint, and I tried desperately to recover myself by telling her that it wasn't her fault, that she had better just leave. She tried to repay some of the money I had given her as I was pouring her gin and tonic, but I waved her off. She stuffed the crumpled up bills back in her ridiculously tiny handbag. She made a phone call and less than ten minutes later was driven away. I sat on the sofa after she had gone, with the smoky smell of dead candles and a pounding in my head.
Richard tried to insist that I try again, but I was too terrified of myself to be alone with a woman after that. I tried to adjust myself to the idea of asexuality. It was less what I had done to Barbara and the prostitute and more how I had felt -- the rage I was capable of, the unpredictable and beast-like qualities that I barely managed to reign in just before I beat the woman with whom I was intimate. Thinking about it, later, I felt disgust and shame; at the time, however, I was consumed. I had never felt that way about anything before Elaine's death. I could not remember feeling anything other than tenderness during sex, but then I was sure that wasn't true. There were moments of anger, sadness, what have you -- but never like this. I reasoned that my loneliness could be cured by things other than physical intimacy, and began to socialize more with Richard and his friends. Mostly I saw men, afraid that I would have an attack simply sharing a glass of wine with a woman. I had very little idea of what exactly brought on my violent feelings -- I knew that it would happen while I was being romantic, if it could be called that, but what if I could become that way due to something else? A comment, a glance? Something that reminded me of Elaine? What if she, during casual conversation, perhaps talking about the news, mentioned rape? What if, while discussing politics, she raised her voice or became angry? Late at night, after coming home from Richard's house or a bar or restaurant he had taken me to, I would play out every possible scenario in my head. Thinking about it made me wince, cover my eyes with my hand. I missed Elaine, I missed myself.
It was in this terrible state of mind that I first saw the article in some fairly reputable glossy. Time, maybe. It was small, less than a quarter page sectioned off on the bottom left side. I was reading at my desk, in front of my computer, considering scanning some images of the lungs of a Panther Chameleon for a high school zoology text. A cup of tea was balanced on my lap and the magazine was open over my keyboard. There was a tiny picture, no more than two inches square, of the exterior of a building with a neon sign that read "DOSE." The article described what was being touted as a controversial new bar at which people took an herbal extract at the door, after signing a release, which partially and temporarily paralyzed them and rendered them incapable of being aroused sexually. The bar was described as being filled with beds, on which frozen club goers lounged. The entire thing seemed almost unthinkably bizarre -- why would someone want to go to a club to paralyze themselves? What use was it? It was like inducing a seizure or willfully contracting the flu. The article closed by mentioning a hefty price tag for entry, which again puzzled me. People paid for this?
That night I went over to the house of one of Richard's friends Louis. He was having six or seven people over for dinner, and I arrived early with a cake for dessert. It had been months, but sometimes I felt enough like an imposition on the lives of Richard and his friends that I went out of my way to ingratiate myself to them. Wherever I went, I went bearing gifts. I was in a constant state of apology. Everyone seemed to be very understanding, however, and I began to see myself as I'm sure they did: almost like an infirm uncle, I suppose. I had nothing for which to apologize other than the fact that I had so aggressively courted their friendship without much context for doing so, but I still used the desserts and wine as insurance.
Louis was in the kitchen making spaghetti. His wife was out buying salad mix. I had come too early again. I had a glass of wine and sat on a barstool at the kitchen bar, a half-wall separating the kitchen from the living room. We talked about nothing in particular -- rent, the Dodgers, marriage. Nervous that he was going to start asking me about how my dating life had been, I brought up the article from Time.
"Heard anything about that weird nightclub, 'Dose'?" I asked him. He pivoted a half step to look at me while he drained the spaghetti.
"That's funny that you mentioned it," he said. "My sister lives out in Oxnard, and she drove two hours to get there when it first opened. She's actually engaged to someone she met there, believe it or not."
I sputtered. "What? It sounded like a crock -- no offense to your sister, or anything, but don't they drug you up before you even get in the door?"
He laughed and put the pasta in a bowl. He raised his eyebrows at me. "Listen, my sister isn't exactly a saint. I'm sure any drug they gave her there she could get plenty of at home. But actually, it's pretty professional. I think they make you sign some sort of waiver, and it's all herbal -- at least she told me it is. It's kind of a tame idea, actually: removes a lot of the pressure from meeting people. It's not about sex, you know? It's about getting to know someone. It can be really intimate, from what she told me. I was curious, but obviously --" he held up his ring finger with its gold band. My heart turned over a little, but righted itself. Mine was at home, in a little square ceramic box. No matter.
"What's the deal with it? You go in, take this herbal thing, and go slump on a barstool while your nerves give way? Or what?"
"I'm pretty sure you lounge," he said, then laughed.
"Oh, right. The beds."
"I sound ridiculous. You know, I don't even know what I'm talking about. You should go check it out, though, maybe. You sound intrigued and from what I've heard, it's actually not bad. And no drinks to buy, just have to pay for the cover."
"How much to get in? The article said it was pretty expensive."
"Oh, it's pricey, I think. A hundred, two hundred. But you get there early and stay all night -- really no different than buying yourself and a couple of girls' drinks at a bar, you know?"
"I guess you have a point," I said, and excused myself to go to the bathroom. When I came back, Louis' wife was back, and Richard and some of his friends had arrived. We sat down to dinner and I didn't bring up the article again, but by the time I left I had made up my mind to try it.
As I was leaving, Richard put his hand on my arm and said, "You seem a little better, man. I think things are looking up for you."
"I hope so," I said, and smiled, and walked to my car.
On the drive home, I realized that it had been a long time since I had been excited for anything -- but why this? You're mad, I thought, rubbing my eyebrows at a stoplight. That night I dreamt of the lungs of chameleons, bleak and motionless on some sort of autopsy table, then filling with air and floating away.
Friday night I called Richard. "I've decided to go to that crazy bar, after all," I said.
"I know where you're going with this," he said. "If you want me to go, you're going to have to pick up my tab, because I haven't spent two hundred dollars on anything since the Bush administration."
"A pittance," I said. "What time do people go?"
"Christ, you're like a high schooler. Eleven? I don't know. I don't go to clubs."
"Neither do I." I was fiddling with a piece of paper. It was in shreds. "Let's go at eleven. Sure, that sounds okay. I'll be at your place at ten forty five. Do I drive? Will I be able to drive afterwards?"
"How else would people get home?"
I wasn't sure if I felt helplessly old and uncool, or whether this nervy excitement made me feel like I was, actually, in high school again. My stomach was in knots; my armpits were damp. I wasn't sure what to wear. Something comfortable, if I was going to be incapacitated. Would I be lying down? A hump of boneless human parts, drooling on an expensive throw pillow? Thank God for Richard. I couldn't fathom going alone.
I showered, I dressed, I had a glass of wine by myself. I had two. I panicked. What if I wasn't supposed to drink? Louis had said it was all herbal. I wondered if that was all right, mixing drugs that paralyze with drinks that relax. Perhaps I would liquefy and slide down a drain in the floor. I left my house and went over to Richards'. He seemed just as nervous as I was.
"Here goes nothing, right?" He laughed. I laughed.
"This means a lot to me," I said, pulling out of his driveway. I sputtered; I wasn't sure how to thank him for everything he had done. I wondered if I would have done this for someone if our situations were reversed: getting a call from someone I hadn't seen or spoken to in years who was falling apart, who needed this much constant support and help. I probably wouldn't have.
"What else am I doing on a Friday night?" he said, and then there was silence, but I felt as though he understood.
Ms. Lynch's story will conclude next week.