Our bodies melted, one into the other, that familiar, secret dance. My scrawny, naked limbs were tan and unimpressive, a fragile out-patient, more bone and teeth than meat. Emily, by comparison, was an amazon with full breasts and a woman’s hips. Our love scene was far from the Hollywood ideal. Still, there was something comfortable about the pairing, a lovely tenderness, grown sweet with years.
As we moved through the familiar sequence, a fear arose, the flaccid terror of a porn-addled mind. Would I get hard? We touched and kissed, Emily allowing my skinny arms to move her through the ancient choreography. It began to grow, a marvelous sensation. Something had been reset. For months I had been too weak and depraved to jerk off. In that time, my mind cleared, pornographic images forgotten in a squall of human drama. In its absence, actual human interaction had once again become exciting. It seemed Sauron’s curse came with a hidden blessing: boners.
We stopped short of the actual deed, naked and glowing, satisfied, despite the imperfect match of our bodies. “I’ve wanted to kiss you for a long time,” I said.
“Me too,” Emily touched my tattoo, trying to read the blurry text, “but about you.” Outside, a train clattered past, it’s voice like falling fences.
The restaurant Emily took me to was bland and Greek, its menu packed with all of the usual suspects. I ordered a salad, adhering to Jackie’s meal plan. It was flavorless and watery, but I didn’t care, I had my boners back.
“Kim used to hate you,” I said through a mouth of salad.
“That makes me sad. Why did she hate me?”
“Hate is too strong a word. She liked you, but she felt threatened. When I’d come in to talk to her at work, and if you were working at the same time, and then if we started chatting? It made her feel threatened.”
There had always been sparks between Emily and I, one of those cosmic things girlfriends hate to see you share with other women. Kim’s fears were founded. Emily had a charisma that transcended beauty. Many men had fallen prey to her seductive ways. Six years later, I still found myself thinking about her. Now we were in New York, eating brunch and flirting back and forth.
“I thought food in New York was first rate,” I said, picking through my bland lettuce.
“I like it here,” said Emily with a yawn.
“Want some prednisone?” I offered, “It’ll perk you right up.” The previous night I had told Emily and Carol about the steroid and its strange, unexpected side effects.
“No thanks,” laughed Emily, “I already have delusions of grandeur.”
“I thought I was the greatest author of this generation,” I said, taking a bite of Emily’s breakfast, not wanting her olives to go to waste, “I believed my memoir would be studied by college students as the greatest piece of literature in the post-postmodern era. I told my sister that I would be more beloved than Johnathan Safran Foer.”
“There’s always a chance,” Emily giggled. It was a sweet laugh. Even now, two years later, it fills my heart with joy.
“You are listening to the recordings,” said the Robot, pride evident in its monotonous voice. The cave was dark, lit only by glowing orbs that bounced around outside.
“Yeah,” there were only three scottsberries left, each one deflated and beginning to shrivel. “I wanted to hear her voice.”
“It’s a magical voice,” the robot nodded, as if lost in memory.
“It is,” I agreed.
“Love is a fleeting thing,” said Nega Nate. “As beautiful and lasting as the morning mist.”
“So are the mountains,” I replied, then paused to think about what I had said. “Love is as fleeting as the mountains.” I expanded the thought, mulling it over in my mind. “The mountains are as fleeting as mist. Love is as strong as the mountains.” Nega Nate scowled, not responding to my attack. I turned to face him, “The proverbial chink in nihilism’s armor,” a new idea was dawning. “If everything equates to nothing, then everything lasts as long as the universe itself, even love is infinite.”
“If you say so,” grumbled my angry companion.
In a restaurant like any other on a world that was slowly dying, Emily and I had finished eating, we began to plan the rest of the day.
“I want to go food shopping,” said Emily.
“Then can we go to Central Park? I’ve never seen it in the summer.”
“Yes. We should lay out and get some sun. Did you say you’ve never been?”
“My sister and I visited New York once in the winter and decided that we needed to go and see it, but it was in the middle of a snow storm. The wind was bitter and we got about 40 feet in before our faces froze and we turned around. Does that count?”
“Only if you want it to.”
We paid for breakfast, then headed to the grocery store. “How’s the acting going?” I adjusted the chain on my MP3 recorder, as another deafening train roared by.
“Good.” Emily had come to New York to pursue a career on stage. “I’m worried about our show tomorrow night. I’m in two improv troops, one of them is good and one of them is not as good. At our last show, things didn’t go as well as I had wanted.”
“I don’t know, I wasn’t feeling it, and then this guy walked across the stage completely naked.”
“What!? Was he part of your troop?” I dodged past people on the crowded sidewalk.
“No, just some random guy.”
“Did he get arrested?”
“It was a sex improv show. I’d just finished putting my strap-on in some guy’s mouth, so it wasn’t completely out of the norm, but—”
“You have a strap-on?”
“I was dressed as a dominatrix with leather and whips and stuff,” Emily answered indirectly, “it was all part of the show.”
“You have leather whips?” I realized that I was out of my league. The morning tryst, which had been so satisfying for me, might very well have bored my adventurous hostess. I realized that I probably should have smacked her ass or something. “Didn’t you used to be a super Christian?”
“When I followed Dustin to Grand Junction I was still a virgin but … it’s a long story. I lost my faith when I realized the other Pentecostals weren’t actually speaking in tongues, there was no holy fire moving their lips, they were doing it themselves. My whole life I felt ashamed because I hadn’t been blessed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, but neither had the people who were praying over me. Everyone was pretending.
“And now you’re a freak.”
“I don’t think we should separate our spirituality from our sexuality. I’m in a healthier place, much less repressed.”
Who was I to judge? One man’s pornography was another woman’s strap-on. If we were little more than sentient animals, as unintended as a colony of mold on a sandwich, what did it matter?
The grocery store was small and unimpressive with terrible produce and a small selection of canned green beans. In Colorado there was space to spread out, the grocery stores were huge, nestled against mountains and cradled by the plains. The Big Apple was stunted by the ocean that surrounded it. New York had run out of space, growing up, instead of out. Big trucks couldn’t navigate the busy streets, only essential items were delivered to the grocer’s crowded shelves.
We paid for our food and headed back to Emily’s. On the way, I switched my MP3 player to a new track, to keep the file sizes manageable.
“How long does that thing record for?” Asked Emily.
“For four gigs,” I replied. “It’s fucking massive. Do you mind that I’m recording you?”
“No,” she giggled, “I like being recorded. Are you going to write bad things about me?”
“I promise to make you awesome,” we crossed the street beneath the ever-present crash of the train.
“You don’t have to make me awesome. You can write whatever you want. I don’t want to get in the way of your art.”
It was the best present anyone had ever given me.
We took our groceries upstairs and began putting them away, I remembered the last time I was in New York. Robbie, Basti and I had come to take part in New Year’s festivities. Emily met up with us and became our guide. She took us to various bars where we consumed a metric ton of alcohol. I remember returning to the apartment we had rented for the weekend. I laid down on the couch and looked at the bed where Emily had stripped down to her underwear. She mounted Robbie, her large breasts cradled in red lace. Basti was on the floor, two hands behind his head, watching the show. Apparently Germans didn’t mind watching each other have sex. Emily and Robbie kissed. I blacked out. By morning, Emily was already gone.
“I forgot that you were Republican,” Emily said, disappointment in her voice. We had been talking about music and I told her that I mostly listened to talk radio.
“Not Republican, conservative. Republicans are too liberal for me.” We were walking down the street, headed to Central Park with blankets, suntan lotion and other accoutrement.
“What made you choose conservatism?” We climbed on the train that had been rumbling past her apartment.
“I think conservatism represents the true shape of the universe. Liberals look at the world and see abundance. They believe a brighter tomorrow without war, poverty and crime is possible.”
“And you don’t?”
“No. There has always been war, poverty and greed and there always will be. Life is a series of trade-offs. The goal for conservatives is to make choices with the least-costly down side, acknowledging that there will always be a down side.”
The train rounded a corner and crossed the bridge from Queens into Manhattan. The view was spectacular, ordered rows of stone buildings marched towards the ocean, their windows shining in the sun. Mankind, for all its faults, had done a pretty good job with New York.
“My parents are Republicans,” said Emily, “and they say the most ignorant, terrible things, but if you question them about specific ideas, they’re actually Democrats, it’s just frowned upon by their church to be anything but Republican. They don’t know why they believe the way they do.”
“Liberals are no different,” I said. “Most kids today are Democrats because it’s cool. You get to vote for a black president and feel good about yourself for recycling. It’s hip to be green, but few people research to see if the energy put into recycled products and wind farms is a net gain. At the end of the day, we’re all ignorant and driven by bias.”
By the time we exited the station, the topic had changed from politics to Tolkien. We were talking about The Lord of the Rings. Emily was a nerd. We met when Nate Klein-Deters brought her to a Dungeons and Dragons session. She enjoyed reading books about wizards and elves and had even tried playing Magic a couple of times. It was nice to spend time with a girl who dreamed of being a sorcerous.
Central Park was massive and packed with people. The grass was not as green as it appeared in the movies, but the trees were just as beautiful. There were bridges and jugglers and people walking their dogs. The sun shone as Emily spread a blanket for us to lay on. For the past two weeks I had been tanning every day, just like Samantha had taught me. My skin was brown. I took off my shirt and, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t ashamed of my pale body. We lay there, talking and basking, surrounded by a city that could not sleep.
The phone rang, it was Dr. Hruza, the man who shoved cameras up my butt, “The Prometheus test came back,” he said. “Your t-cell counts are where they need to be so we’re free to increase your dose of azathioprine,” he was referring to a bottle of pills he’d prescribed that I never picked up. I played along, pretending that I would take more of his non-existent medication. It was a dangerous gambit, one that could lead to a relapse, but for now I was trusting Jackie and the voodoo magic of my youth.
Once our skin had absorbed enough Vitamin D, Emily and I wandered around, looking at the fountains, tunnels and people. We watched a string quartet play beneath a shaded pavilion, then passed an African man, as black as fresh pavement. He was doing yoga stretches in the sun. I’d seen him before, on a popular blog about New York. Emily bought a pineapple popsicle because they were out of strawberry and I criticized the work of the many portrait artists who had set up booths along a tree-lined colonnade.
Eventually, we got lunch at a trendy vegan restaurant, the waitress listed all of the things that were not on the menu, “Our soups are made without cream or animal base and the vegetable stock contains no gluten, there is no GMO in any of our salads and everything except the tofu is soy-free.” It was the perfect place to eat if you were riddled with Chron’s.
After we ate, I decided I wanted orange juice. “Fresh squeezed,” I said, “we’ll head home, squeeze some oranges, then drink juice and listen to Tobolowsky.” I had told Emily about the Tobolowsky Files and how inspiring they were.
“Alright,” Emily giggled.
We trekked home, talking about our virginities and the specifics of how they had been lost.
Back at the apartment, the sun was past its prime. The train clattered by, returning people to their homes after a long day at work. Emily went upstairs to shower and I set out on a quest for oranges and a hand juicer. It proved more harrowing than I had anticipated.
Three hours later, I finally returned. “Where have you been?” asked Emily, laughing at my tired face.
“This town has shitty oranges and no juicers. I went to the grocery store, two CVSs, a halal shop—”
“What’s a halal shop?” Asked Emily.
“It’s like kosher, but for muslims. They had about 50 buckets filled with various kinds of olives, but no juicers. Then I wandered for more than a mile, stopping at every store before I found a place with one of these,” I held up the two dollar piece of plastic.
“I can’t believe you went through all that. You should have quit.”
“I had already bought the oranges,” I set down the grocery bag. “I lugged those things all over Queens.” My tiny arms had almost broken with the effort. “It became personal. I wasn’t going to let New York beat me.”
We headed to the kitchen to juice the shitty oranges, discussing comic books as we collected the precious liquid in a glass container.
Carol came home from work, a smile on her face, “A boy messaged me!” She was subscribed to an online dating site, the proverbial fish-filled sea of the modern era. “Look how cute he is!” she beamed. There was a loneliness in her glee, a desperation that shadowed every movement. Aphrodite was fond of shunning those who desired her most.
The three of us retired to Emily’s bedroom, each with a glass of orange juice. We listened to Tobolowsky, the episode where he rode show horses in a stadium, then Emily pulled out a device that looked like the handle of a light saber, “Want a hit?”
“What is that thing?”
“It’s a vaporizer.”
I took the contraption and looked at it from different angles, “There’s weed in this?”
“Not Colorado weed, but it’s the best we can get in New York.”
I’d never smoked before, but I’d been getting my sleep with edibles for a week. Was there a difference between the two cosmically? Smoking pot felt more evil than eating pot, but there was a chance I could sleep without dosing temazapam. I put the opening to my lips and sucked. A nasty fog filled my mouth. I sucked again, exhaling warm nothingness. Then I put the device between my feet, rolled onto my back, and drank the vapor like a baby panda with a bottle. I fell off the bed, inducing fits of giggles from Carol and Emily. We passed the lightsaber around for a while, “I don’t feel anything.” I said.
“Hits from the vaporizer are pretty weak,” said Carol.
“You want to try my pipe?” Offered Emily.
“Sure.” I thought about Brett, my drug addict cousin who had recently died from an overdose. Had his early demise begun in a similar fashion? In the past two months I had become a different person. Tragedy had torn away the good intentions, revealing a desperate Gollum who wanted nothing more than to survive. Things I once believed important now seemed silly. Actions I never thought I’d take were becoming common place.
Emily packed a bowl and handed it to me, explaining how the device worked. I lit the buds and pulled deep, inhaling a cloud of caustic, black smoke. “Gahh!” I hacked up something clear and viscous, coughing like an old lady, doubled over in spastic fits. Spit and snot gushed all over my face, water poured out of my eyes. This made Carol and Emily laugh even more. “It’s official,” I held the pipe up, coughing triumphantly, “I’m a stoner.”
Time passed. Myriad, crashing trains clattered by. The drug began to take hold.
“Would you give me a reading?” asked Carol. She was thinking about the boy who had messaged her on the internet. Would this be the man who fulfilled her deepest desires?
“Sure,” Emily pulled a deck of Tarot cards from a box beside her bed. The cards were over-sized with mysterious images printed on one side. Emily let Carol shuffle, then placed the cards in a certain order in the middle of the bed where we were sitting. She pulled out a book and read the meaning of the spread.
Was there power in this ancient practice? From an early age I had been taught that there was a spiritual realm beyond perception, a place filled with angels, demons and a Holy Ghost, I had been trained to believe in magic.
“Would you read my cards?” I asked, once Emily was finished with Carol.
“Of course.” She had me shuffle the deck, then went through the same process, laying out talismans in the sacred order. “Great things are on the way,” Emily read from the book. “You’re in the midst of turmoil, but it will lead to a new beginning. The birthing process will be painful, but if you endure, good things are on the way.”
“My book,” I said, the weed flowing fuzzy through my brain. “It’s talking about my book.” Delusions swirled around me. Would this be the achievement that fulfilled my deepest desire?
Two years have passed since that night on Emily’s bed. I’m hunched over a keyboard, writing this sentence, a bag of chips and dirty dishes spread across my desk. A few friends read my story, but it has not spread. Like most people, I am not famous; like Carol, I am not loved. Instead, I fight to finish what a different Nathan began, hoping that something breaks, that these words bring salvation. Was Emily wrong? Did she misread the cards? Or is it simply that I have more to endure before the dawn? Buddhists claim that the reward is the journey itself, but this is nihilism of a different sort, a way of accepting life for what it is. I eat another chip and forge ahead, fighting for the future Emily saw written on her cards.
“I’m tired,” said Carol, yawning. “You ready for bed?” she asked Emily.
“Nathan’s…” Emily looked at me, “going to sleep in here tonight.”
“Oh…” Carol deflated slightly, once again Emily had found love, once again her own hopes had been rebuffed. Life, it seems, is full of disappointment.
to be continued