January 31, 2008

Out of Bounds

I had dinner with Cammy last night and it turned into yet another exchange that really left behind all sense of propriety and decency. But that’s why I do this: so I can share with the world the state of discourse (not to mention, intercourse) among the lonely and wretched middle-aged populace. It also made me realize that I need more men in my life. All my male friends have moved away. Thus, I can only be inappropriate with women and that can only lead to bad things.

It started out normally enough. She’s an ex-colleague. We get together now and then to talk about our careers. This time, though, Cammy had something else on her mind. She had been seeing a man she met online (it’s where all this kind of trouble starts now). It hadn’t lasted long and so there was no heartbreak. But still, she was down. The sex had been fantastic.

“We did things I never did before. It was completely off the hook.”

“Like what?”

We were eating Italian. The appetizers had come. Scallops sheathed in bacon.

“Well,” she said, leaning forward, “he likes to be dominated.”

“Oh, God.” I couldn’t imagine it. Cammy is tiny.

“It was exhausting.”

“Anal?” I asked, getting bored from the lack of real information.

Cammy paused. She didn’t quite answer the question.

“We were just about to take a trip to a sex shop to buy a strap-on.”

She covered her mouth, embarrassed. I pictured the happy couple on a nice winter stroll; they could have been going to the museum or a café. But this is New York in the 21st century, so they were going to the Pink Pussycat.

“For who? Wait, for you?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry, Cammy, I just can’t picture it.”

She sighed.

“It was the best sex I had in years.”

“I hear you, sister. I’m in the same boat. I was in a sexual wasteland for two years, before Nadia came along. I don’t want to go back there.”

Nadia and I had recently broken up. Let me rephrase that. She broke up with me after calling me an “obnoxious American.”

“Nadia was completely uninhibited,” I said. “I mean, for god’s sake, she let me come on her face.”

Cammy shook her head in disgust.

“No, no, I couldn’t do that.”

“Really? She loved it. I remember the first time I did it, she looked up at me and she said, ‘I was wondering when you were going to do that.’ ”

“Not for me,” Cammy said. “It’s too demeaning.”

“That’s so narrow.”

“Maybe, but it would take a long while with someone before I let them do that.”

“Jesus, you were going to demean your boyfriend with a strap-on.”

“Do you have conversations like this with everyone else?”

I swirled my fork through the penne and sausage.

“No, of course not.

January 28, 2008

Death Duties

I went on two dates this weekend and both times the conversation eventually drifted toward death. In the first case, I had to use my father’s death to prove my manhood.

It started off innocently enough. That is, the woman — a lawyer — spent the entire dinner teasing me. Not teasing me in the friendly way of people who like each other, but in that mean, sexual way — the way that makes you squirm.

“I’m really attracted to you,” she said.

“Really? I’m attracted to you too.”

“But I think we should just be friends.”

“Oh. Well, okay. We’ll just be friends, then.”

We had been through this a number of times. I knew the drill. Then, her eyes welled up.

“Just okay? You just blew it. If you were really interested, you wouldn’t have said that.”

“But I am really interested.”

“Well, the truth is,” she said, “I met someone else. Someone I’m interested in.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“Psych!”

Her eyes glistened. She was completely insane. But good-looking. I wanted to bury my face in her chest. I wanted to do other things, too. There was something about her that turned me into an idiot. I had become a disingenuous babbler, someone willing to say just about anything to get a whiff of her sex.

“Maybe,” she said, “if you took charge more, I’d be more responsive to you. It’s some elemental thing. A man is there to protect the woman.”

She had talked like this on our first date. It was as thought she had studied courtship rituals from an earlier era that insisted women should act like coquettish witches and that men should take it.

And it was at this point in the conversation that I pulled out my ace card. The death of my father.

I told her about the funeral. It was in a town called Valhalla. That would be Valhalla, NY. After the service, as is the tradition among the Jews and the Italians, we feasted. It was an Italian restaurant, actually. We were fifteen — family and those closest to my father — sitting around a wide table. James, the neighbor, read from a prepared speech, copiously quoting philosophers. Cousin Ralph hemmed and hawed over the menu, grief stricken, and then ordered the lobster tail. My mother — dignified, a lady — led the table talk and the reminiscences. Then the check came. The waiter leaned across the table to hand it to my mother.

“Wait a minute,” I said. Everyone stopped talking. The check in my mother’s hand hung frozen in the air. “I’ll take that, mom.”

Usually when I offered to pay at some family function, there would be strenuous protests and I would acquiesce. On that day, my mother simply said “okay.” Everybody at the table carefully watched what happened next. Their eyes followed my mother’s arm as it reached across the table and she passed the check into my hand. We all knew what was going on. I had just assumed the mantle of the family patriarchy.

“And I did it,” I said to the woman, “without thinking, really. It was instinctive.”

“Wow,” she said.

I had finally managed to impress her.

The topic came up again on Saturday, in a small music club on Avenue C. It was loud and dark. I had gone there with a nurse practitioner. She was describing taking death duties in the intensive care unit of the pediatric hospital where she worked. She loved her job, but it sounded grim. I told her about the morning my father died. How the moment after the doctor had called it, she had left the room weeping. How the nurses on death duty came in with grave faces, goggles over their eyes, rubber gloves up to their elbows. They conducted my father’s body not with the alienated indifference that comes from repetition and emotional hardening, but from a simple and solemn respect for the dead. Those are the strongest images I have of that morning; not of my father, but of the people who took care of him.

On Friday, the lawyer had taken me to her apartment, tortured me a little more, and then sent me on my way, unkissed and untouched. But I was filled with the memory of my father. It stayed with me the entire weekend. Since his death, I’ve noticed how I’ve assumed his ways, his expressions, even in how I pick up a glass, or saunter across a room.

Except that he surely would have bedded that lawyer by now.

January 24, 2008

I’ve Enjoyed Our Conversation

The catheter snaked through my nose and down into to my stomach, producing tears. Then they ran a cable through my mouth and into the esophagus, where they deposited a tiny capsule that would transmit acid levels to a receiver I had to wear for 48 hours. It was now four o’clock. I hadn’t eaten all day. My eastern European gastroenterologist sighed.

“You are very committed. But remember, remember to negotiate with the surgeon. Tell him you’re a poor man; you can’t pay all that.”

The surgeon wanted 17,000 dollars.

I nodded. I told him that my Croatian girlfriend had dumped me. She called me an “obnoxious American,” I said. He laughed.

“They are tough, these Balkan women.”

We shook hands. We are like old friends now.

Exhausted, hungry, I slunk into the diner across the street from Lenox-Hill. It was nearly empty. I took a seat by the window. An elderly man sat two tables down from me. Strangely, there was nothing on his table, not even a glass of water. He didn’t seem to be waiting for food. He looked as though he was resting, gathering strength.

The waitress was young, hot. Blond. She wore black, tightly. She strategically exposed the curve of her breasts. I could tell just by the look of her that she was Eastern European. It’s a curse, these fucking bitches.

I ordered. I checked my messages. I checked my email. The food came. Excited, I reached toward the plate.

“That looks good.”

It was the man. There goes my lunch, I thought, immediately. There goes my lunch!

I nodded, smiled, said or mumbled something acknowledging.

“I’m a retired tax lawyer.”

“Pardon me?”

“I’m a retired tax lawyer.”

He’s just found out he’s got cancer, I thought. I looked at my plate.

“Oh yeah?”

“I worked from 1960 to 2000.”

“Forty years. Wow.”

I picked up my phone. I made a call, but there was no answer.

“I’m a lawyer,” he said. “My wife’s a lawyer. Our two daughters are lawyers and they’re married to lawyers. You can’t say anything at our dinner table without someone raising an objection.”

He looked tired and a little sad. But I didn’t want to reach out to him. I’m suspicious of everybody. I like to be left alone. I was eating my food too quickly, because now I wanted to leave.

He talked about how much money he had made. He asked me where had I just come from and I pointed to Lenox-Hill.

“Patient or visiting someone?”

“Patient.”

He nodded. He understood.

“I was just at my psychiatrist’s,” he said. “Over on 5th Avenue.”

I definitely didn’t want to talk to him anymore. But, I’m a pussy. I’m afraid to be impolite. I don’t like scenes. So instead of nipping this in the bud, I nodded and said, “yes” or “no” or “really?” I didn’t fully engage and couldn’t completely disengage. I was like the UN peacekeepers in Bosnia during its civil war, causing it to last longer by way of token interventions that simply dragged things along.

“My wife and I live on 5th Avenue and 12th St. We own an Audi. It’s silver.”

I nodded or said “wow.”

“Well I’ve enjoyed our little chat. I’m going to go pee and then go home.”

But he sat there without moving. The waitress came over and asked the man if he wanted anything. He said no. She didn’t know what to do with him. She shot a commiserating look in my direction and then abandoned me.

The man stared ahead at nothing. We didn’t talk for a few minutes. I thought it was over.

Then he said, “I’m a retired tax lawyer.”

“Oh, yeah?” I said

With minor differences — a new word here and there, an added line, a dropped line — the one-sided conversation repeated itself. I ate the rest of my late lunch, still nodding.

At the end, he said, “Well, I’ve enjoyed our conversation. I’m going to go to the men’s room and then go home.”

This time, he looked as if he might actually do it. His frame tensed as though he were about to stand. But a moment later, he relaxed back into his chair.

The waitress returned. She looked worriedly at the man. I asked for my check.

The man and I sat in silence for a few moments. Then he turned to me.

“I was just at my doctor’s on 5th Avenue. Where’d you just come from?”

The conversation repeated another time. I mindlessly followed along, stupefied.

“I’m glad we had a chance to talk. I’m going to pee now and go home.”

His body tensed and then relaxed.

Finally, I said, “You’re repeating yourself.”

He looked at me blankly.

I stood, paid my check. I turned. I wanted to say something nice, but I didn’t know what and I didn’t now how to do it without getting further involved.

“Well, bye,” I said.

And I rushed out of there, ashamed and hating myself.

January 23, 2008

Taking a Specimen

There comes a time in every man’s (and woman’s) life in which some circumstance forces you to pay close attention to your shit. Like most people, I don’t dwell on it. And I’m happy that novels and movies ignore this function, too (except for this Chinese painter I knew who didn’t). But today in my bathroom I shat into a plastic bag. I was under orders, you see. My doctor, Dr. Larissa K, a Russian who fancies tall boots, wanted to get to the bottom of my digestion problems (okay, Goddammit, my ceaseless diarrhea problems) and so she requested a stool sample.

“Is not so easy, I know,” she said sympathetically, “but you can do it. Everybody does it. I don’t know how they do it, but they do.” She shook her head, astonished. I guess she had never done it.

A few minutes later, a doctor’s assistant walked in holding three Ziploc baggies, each containing a pair of plastic containers the size of pill bottles. She was cute, blond hair in a little ponytail, also Russian. She held the bags in both hands and then laughed uncontrollably when she handed them to me. I was to take all this home, where I’d put the samples into the bottles and then return them to the office.

“So many containers,” I said.

“It’s terrible,” she said. “Is very difficult. Use chopsticks you get from Chinese restaurants to help.”

I had no idea what she meant. It was a horror too terrible to contemplate.

She began to explain the procedure. I was to put samples into the bottles over the course of three days.

“Three days?” I cried.

“Yes. Put them in refrigerator. In bottom part.”

That’s where I keep the lettuce and radishes.

“I guess I’ll get better at it by the third time,” I said. The nurse laughed.

She said something again about chopsticks. And then, as though to avoid continuing down this path, where she knew too much about me and I knew nothing about her, we started talking about our cats.

“What color is your cat?” she asked.

“Orange. What color is yours?”

“Black. Completely black.”

“What’s his name?”

“Henry. Your cat, what is name?”

“Max.”

“Where does he sleep?”

“With me. In my bed.”

She blushed. Then she made sure I understood the instructions and then I left.

Two hours later I’m naked in my bathroom, digging up bits of my loose stool with an absurdly tiny scoop that came in the kit. No chopsticks for me. I had locked Max out of the bathroom. No reason for him to see this.

It’s a difficult procedure. It requires that you clear your mind of all superfluous thoughts, so you can concentrate fully on the task.

But the thing that kept me going was thinking about that cute doctor’s assistant and her black cat. Her hair in that ponytail, her unexpected laughter. Knowing that somewhere in her mind, a part that she couldn’t really control, she pictured me doing this and wondered how I’d get along.

Max scratched at the bathroom door, whining for dinner.

January 17, 2008

The Anesthesiologist and the Crickets

They had me on the table wearing a gown, with oxygen coming through my nose. In a matter of minutes, my eastern European GI would plunge a probe down my throat. But for the moment, I was stuck in the small, cold room with the talkative anesthesiologist. He knew me. I had been to that office one too many times. They all knew me there.

“Well, I solved a big mystery this morning,” he said, hovering.

“What?”

“I figured out how the crickets are escaping from my son’s lizard terrarium.”

“Hmmm?” This was going to be rough. But I had no choice; I was a captive.

“Yes, my son, he wanted lizards, because he thinks they’re cool.”

“They are cool.”

“Right. And so we got him a terrarium and some lizards. The terrarium has some branches in there, too, so the lizards can—”

“—so they can climb around.”

“So they can bask.”

The anesthesiologist attached a wired clip on my finger. My heartbeats filled the room.

“Lizards only eat live things. So my wife’s been buying crickets at the pet store. 10 cents per each. A dollar-seven for ten. They tax crickets.”

“Really?” Of course they tax crickets, I thought. I was just being polite.

“But they kept on escaping and we couldn’t figure out how. The walls on the terrarium are high. I saw them scratching at the glass, but they don’t get anywhere. Slight pinch.”

He had taken my hand. Now, he was inserting a needle. When it was in, he taped it into place.

“I mean, I was putting my pants on a few days ago and one hopped out. Well, this morning I saw how they’re escaping. Arm out.”

He attached a clear tube to the exposed end of the needle.

“They climb up a branch and wait for one of the lizards. When a lizard gets near, the cricket crawls onto its head and when the lizard raises its head high enough, the cricket jumps out of the terrarium.”

Now this had me interested. I imagined the crickets lining up, waiting their turn.

“Wow,” I said, “that’s smart.”

“Isn’t it? The funny thing is that the first batch of crickets didn’t know how to do it, but the second did and so does this batch. Somehow, these new crickets learned the trick, too, but they weren’t in contact with any of the crickets from the second batch. It’s as though they picked it up from the ether.”

Ether, I thought. Very funny. Anesthesiologists are are always trying to be funny. More so than nurses and definitely more so than doctors. I think it’s because they’re a bit lonely. Their job is compartmentalized. It’s hard for them to make friends with the other doctors, so they chat up the strapped-down patients. On the other hand, this one was an earnest fellow, so maybe he wasn’t trying to be funny.

“Morphic resonance,” I said, “You should look into that. A Brit crackpot named Rupert Sheldrake came up with this theory that people can learn from each other over great distances and without any direct contact.”

“Is that right? Morphic resonance?”

“He did a study that showed that people who work on the Sunday crossword on Monday do it better, because they somehow get the benefit of what the Sunday people learned.”

The anesthesiologist stopped what he was doing, which was mostly unwrapping things and fiddling around with the monitors.

“Really? Almost like quorum sensing.”

“Quorum sensing?”

“When enough bacteria get together, they do something, like emit a gas or something, but not before.”

“That’s amazing,” I said. “I wonder—”

The door opened; the doctor and nurse entered.

“Okay,” said the anesthesiologist. It was back to business. “Turn on your side. You’re going to go to sleep now.”

The GI held something in his hands.

“You ready?” he said. “Is like frequent flier miles for you.”

He strapped the thing around my head. Something warm began to travel up my arm.

“Here it comes,” said the anesthesiologist.

I felt heavy. My eyes found the ceiling. The enormous face of the anesthesiologist appeared above me.

“Believe in the force, Luke!”

He was funny, after all.

I fell asleep.

January 16, 2008

Dostoevsky

I was coming back from the gym this morning. It was raining and a little gloomy. One of my neighbors stood in front of our gate, talking to a stranger. My neighbor is a lawyer and an actor; he runs a small theater in Brooklyn. He had grown a beard.

“Dostoevsky again?” I said.

“Yeah.”

January 13, 2008

Diana

A friend in Vermont called me today. Diana. We used to hike together when I went up there. She was surprised to find me at home in the middle of the afternoon.

“I’m getting a colonoscopy tomorrow,” I explained. “I’ve been home all today. It’s prep day.”

“Prep day? What’s that?”

“You really want to know?”

“Sure.” I could hear her voice settling into contentment. This was what we were all about, Diana and I. Mindless chatter that went too far.

“Well, you can’t eat anything the day before and they make you take these laxatives, so you’re running to the bathroom every ten minutes.”

“I bet that feels good.” She was serious.

“By the end,” I said, “you’re just shitting water.”

“That’s amazing.”

“It cleans you out,” I said.

“I bet it does.”

Diana, I should explain, has a real granola side to her. This is probably because she comes from money.

I said, brightly, “It’s a total colon cleansing.”

“So, does it hurt to take a poop after the colonoscopy, like after anal sex?”

Unfortunately, my experience has been limited to colonoscopies, so I could offer no guidance. It didn’t matter, because I could have said anything. It doesn’t take much for our conversations to veer into this kind of territory. We had no limits.

“No, it doesn’t hurt. Why, does it hurt to poop after anal sex?”

“Yeah, at least with me it does.”

“I thought you didn’t do that.”

“Well, I don’t, but just with Ned.” Ned is her boyfriend. “I don’t really like it much, but he really wants to.”

“I’m surprised you let him.”

“Maybe my poop hole is just smaller than most people’s.”

“You know, when you get the colonoscopy they give you muscle relaxants and sedatives, so maybe that’s why it doesn’t hurt. You’re too tense. It’s because you don’t like it.”

They were planning on getting married.

Then we talked about my sad, lonely little life. I told her about the one who said I had aged badly, the one who said I was a dick but just didn’t know it, the one who said I wasn’t a gentleman, and the various other scolding wenches that the universe takes pleasure in flinging at me.

I asked her: “Are all women ballbusters, basically, in the end, they’re all just ballbusters, right?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” Diana said.

January 10, 2008

I Know Who You Are

She had a pretty face. A girl-next-door face. She wrote in her dating profile that she was a great kisser. That was good enough for me, so I emailed her.

“What a coincidence; I’m also a great kisser,” I wrote.

I didn’t expect a response. Hardly anyone replies to emails on dating sites. Thousands of conversations begin in messages that go in only one direction, before they simply die, unanswered. So, no response was what I got, until about two weeks later. In the business of online dating, this is called a miracle.

“You look familiar to me,” she wrote. “Do we know each other?”

“No,” I wrote back, “I don’t think so.” Then I backtracked. “It’s possible.”

It was possible. Even though I had no recollection of her whatsoever, she still had the kind of fresh, everyday face that made me wonder if we did know each other from somewhere. I can go so far as to say that, if pressed, everybody looks familiar to me. And when people say I look familiar to them, I take notice. I do not look like the boy next door. Someone once had the nerve to tell me that I didn’t look American. And many years earlier, when I was young enough so that an offhand remark could inflict a deep emotional scar, a friend’s father referred to me as that “unusual looking boy.” In short, I am not a leading man. More like a character actor in the shadows. The kind that invariably gets whacked. People remember my face. My cat’s veterinarian remembered me after ten years.

“Vividly,” he said.

In the course of our email flirting, the dating prospect had a revelation. Vermont. A small town. The summer of 2000. I was sharing an apartment with a friend. He had taught a writing class she had taken in New York. Finally, over the phone, she told me that she had stayed with us for two nights in that town.

“Really?” I said. This had turned embarrassing. I still had no memory of her. I worried that she wasn’t as attractive as her photos. Because I always remember the pretty ones. Always.

“We hardly interacted,” she said. “It was a bad time for you.”

It had been a bad time. The worst time of my life.

She said, “But I know all these details about you for some reason.”

“You have me at a great disadvantage,” I said. I tried to make this sound funny and mysterious.

“You grew up in the Upper West Side,” she said.

“I did, that’s right.”

“And your father, he was a Holocaust survivor.”

“Right.”

“And I remember that he was very sick that summer.”

“Yes, true.”

He was very sick, sick with lymphoma. And then he died. I left Vermont and came back a few weeks later when it was all over.

“I lost my car keys,” she explained. “That’s why I stayed for two nights. We hardly talked. You were very depressed.”

I had spent the rest of the summer getting baked with the locals. They taught me how to open beer bottles with a lighter and I learned who was the best waitress in the county.

“I’m sorry, it’s weird,” I said, “but I don’t remember you at all.”

January 8, 2008

Gentlemanly Manners

Apparently, I am not a gentleman. Or maybe, I’m not quite a gentleman. Anyway, no one ever taught me how to become one. I don’t seem to know the rules. Lena once called me “practically feral.” Nadia gave me my pink slip because I didn’t hold open enough doors, or put on her coat when we left restaurants.

“Well, any thug can do that,” I had said.

“You make good point,” she conceded. She’s Croatian. She talked like that.

I felt encouraged.

“Thugs put women on pedestals, but that’s just the flip side of beating them, which they also do.”

Nadia looked a bit skeptical.

“Maybe is true.”

“But I listen to you. I care about what’s going on in your life. I encourage you. I don’t treat you like a delicate flower.”

Her face had turned a little wistful, a little sad.

And then, weeks later, when it was all over with Nadia, I’m on a date and I’m walking a woman home.

“You’re walking ahead of me!”

I turned.

“What?”

“Why are you walking ahead of me? What’s your problem?”

I started to understand. I’ve got long legs; I’m always bolting ahead.

“Sorry,” I said, slowing, talking shorter strides.

“It’s not polite,” she said, “for a man to do that. Think of your audience.”

Soon, I trailed her. And soon her head turned.

“I’m really leading the way here; you’re like a woman.” She smiled, but it was a bit contemptuous.

“Wait, what? I thought you didn’t want me to be ahead of you!”

“That doesn’t mean follow me! It doesn’t mean fall behind!”

We had stopped.

“Look,” she said, “get up here.”

I did so. We started walking again.

“You have to stay at my side.”

I did so.

“You’re the man. You need to project a sense of control, of protection.”

We reached the end of the street. The light had just turned red. I put my arm out to block her way.

She smiled softly, nodding.

January 3, 2008

Handjobs

“There’ve only been two women in my whole life who got me off with handjobs,” I said. “I mean, a proper handjob. Not one mixed with other forms of stimulation.”

The three of us were sitting in a restaurant that had no right to be so expensive, sharing a clay pot filled with pork. The three of us all Jews. For only the Jew truly understands the unsubtle wonder of pork.

“Just two women? In your whole life?”

“Just two. I probably should have married one of them. It’s a regret.”

Gretchen looked beyond our table; she held her chopsticks in that vague place between eating and thinking.

“I’ve never had any problem with that,” she said.

I looked up from the pork.

“What? Really?”

Cassie had also stopped eating.

“Really?”

“Yup,” Gretchen said. “Every single time. No problem at all.” She demonstrated, virtually, with her free hand.

“Are you sure?” I said.

“I just know. Every single time. It’s just a thing I know I can do.”

“I’m impressed.”

“Me, too,” said Cassie. “Usually I have to finish them off in other ways.”

That reminded me of something.

“My next door neighbor claims she’s the queen of blowjobs,” I said.

We finished up our dinner and Cassie excused herself for the ladies room.

“Gretchen,” I said, “Listen, I’ll give you $75 for a handjob.”

She looked at me quietly. I think she was considering it.

“No,” she finally said. “We have too many friends in common.”

“That’s true,” I said. “Fair enough.”

“If we were strangers … ”

She wanted to prove how good she was at it. Her thing. The handjobs. She had been depressed lately about her life and maybe this special thing she did empowered her.

Cassie returned. A desert came. We had ordered one to share between the three of us. A chocolate banana cake confection. But the cake was only the size of a big piece of gourmet chocolate.

Gretchen sighed.