It starts with my morning routine. I shave and trim my mustache and eyebrows. I pat my belly and look at it from both sides. I shower. I dry off. I look at my pubic hair. I like it trimmed tight and neat and I like my balls smooth. But I hate to shave so I cut the hairs right to the skin using long silver scissors. Pulling scrotum skin with one hand and holding scissors with the other hand is a delicate and dangerous operation. I find it relaxing.
I end my routine by holding my penis. I think of where it’s been. I think of it inside, actually inside of another person’s body, a body much like mine. The asses and pussies and mouths. The tenderness of orifices. It almost excites me. I don’t masturbate or fantasize though. I just hold it and close my eyes and feel the blood pulse, pulse.
It reminds me I’m alive.
I focus intently on my work but that’s just work. There is no desire other than paycheck and necessity. I respond to emails, work on websites, but think about Jared, who left me. Makes sense. I come with a lot of shit. He wanted a relationship. I wanted safety. Clearly, an impasse. Relationships are never safe or easy or calm. They are risky. Fraught. They aren’t guaranteed. Jared wants guarantees.
I think about my daughter who’s now in college.
I think about being alone. I realize I have way too much free time.
So when I’m not working, I bike around, not necessarily for exercise as I did initially when I wanted to get healthy. Now I do it to feel connected.
I usually bike to Berkeley High around 3:45 when school ends and teenagers brazenly take over the sidewalks and roads as they make their way off campus. I zip between students that remind me of my daughter. I look at the angry faces of drivers stuck in their cars as swaths of teenagers refuse to let them through the crosswalks. I enjoy the thrill of biking along congested streets of Berkeley and Oakland. I bike the commerce of Telegraph Avenue and the privilege of College Avenue and the diversity of Shattuck Avenue. I bike Grizzly Peak when I feel like sweating. I bike around Lake Merritt to see little kids and parents together.
Other than that, I get coffee at the various cafes around my apartment. I bring no work and no reading so it’s me and coffee and the awkward nothingness I do while everyone has a phone or laptop or book in front of them.
I look for eye contact.
I almost never get any, until Janet.
She’s wrapped in a scarf that makes her head seem way too small. The scarf, red and black, balances on her shoulders like it was squeezed from toothpaste.
She has nothing in front of her except a donut and a cup of tea, the string with the paper tab dangling down.
She sits across from me at the communal table.
I am halfway through my double Americano and a lemon bar.
We seem to fall into a pattern. When she sips, I sip. When she takes a bite, I take a bite.
I smile back.
She says, Don’t copy me.
I say, I started first.
She says, Ok I’ll change it up.
So as I sip she takes a bite. She tries to create a different rhythm but we seem to still match up.
I laugh a little and blow the powdered sugar off the top of my lemon bar. She smiles and proceeds to wind the string with the paper tab around the handle of her mug. She has a chubby face and crooked mouth and is not at all my type of woman when I date women. I think of the women I’ve been attracted to. Betsy, my daughter’s mother, is an anomaly. Betsy, short and stocky, I loved because I was a boy when I met her and she loved me like a man. The women that followed her were more like the boy I was: thin, pliable, defensively arrogant, and slightly skittish.
This woman is too confident. She has this black curly hair that’s shaved around the sides with a mop of black ringlets bouncing all about her head. She also has grandmother cat glasses, which bug the shit out of me, because they are just so fashionable.
But her smile is relaxing.
You biked here right, she asks.
I did, I say.
I like that you bike, she says.
I bike a lot, I say.
I like that, a lot, she says.
She says, I’m meeting my boyfriend in a few minutes. But we should hang out. We should bike.
With your boyfriend, I ask.
No, she says and smiles.
She slides me her number and straps on her helmet, one of those very round, motorcycle kind, with stickers affixed to the gray plastic: ‘share the road,’ ‘clitoral mass,’ ‘one less fixie.’
I don’t call her. I can’t bring myself to call her. I can’t accept that I’m that lonely.
But I do return to the same coffee shop repeatedly.
I see her three weeks later.
I am outside drinking an Americano and she rides up and says, Are you free for the next couple hours.
Normally, I’d say free till five when my daughter comes home but my daughter, I remind myself, is living in LA with her boyfriend. Using my daughter as an excuse still feels instinctual. I still feel I have a place I need to be even though I don’t. I have no place to be.
I look at her chubby face, a couple zits scabbed over on her chin. I wonder if she breaks out when she menstruates like my daughter does.
I say, Yes. I’m free, and nod my head a bit too eagerly.
Come with me. There’s this Jean-Michel Basquiat show I want to check out at the Oakland museum.
Janet and I bike along sanctioned Bike Boulevards taking up the full lane.
I just listen while she tells me about graduating from a Chinese medicine school, learning acupuncture, and taking a few months off to relax before setting up her practice.
You practice on yourself first, she says, you practice diagnosing yourself and then your classmates. It’s a hoot. That was the best part, learning to diagnose each other, looking at people’s bodies, smelling them, questioning them. You even ask about their poop.
She says it like it would be a great thing to do at a party.
I imagine the possibilities of reading the body like a medical book. I imagine those Chinese medicine charts with numbers and lines and diagrams sweeping across the body each connecting one thing to another thing, individual points creating the whole.
She pauses for a moment and I ask, Do you know how to help someone sleep.
She asks, You?
I say, Yes. Lately I’ve had a hard time staying asleep once I fall asleep.
I do, she says and lets go of her handlebars to look back at me, I can treat you if you want. I help my boyfriend all the time.
Once we get to the museum, we have less than an hour to find the Basquiat paintings. The museum is empty. We have room after room to ourselves. I walk up to a Mel Ramos painting, a woman leaning on a car, the colors vibrant and glowing. I lean in close and see the way the paint brush strokes make up her skin. I lean back to find the moment the brush strokes become indiscernible. The moment the illusion of skin becomes real.
Juan! Hey, Juan! Here it is, Janet calls to me.
I follow the sound and enter a dim room to see her standing there, hands on her hips in front of a number of paintings. They’ve been placed in a special room with a bench in front of the paintings to encourage contemplation and comfort, I presume. We start with the smaller ones slowly walking past each: stick bodies, hair wild and scribbly hands like claws with three fingers, frenetic, with bold colors. The lines childish, but determined. The thing that strikes me is the scribbles and drawings are like the medical charts I imagined Janet studied. They appear like compass markings. Like legends on maps. Like if I looked past the lines and swirls and paint and color I’d find something important.
The biggest painting, King Pleasure, is calm, soothing, almost boring after the others. This painting is mostly empty space, painted a rich, mustard yellow. He uses plain, ragged lines to draw his trademark crown right in the center of the picture. He’s filled it in with a dull brown. There’s a small sword to the left of the crown off to the side like a thought, but he’s scribbled over it. There are three other scribbled out things circling the crown, hinting at what was there, what we cannot know. Finally, the words “King Pleasure” written out and underlined with the final “e” scribbled out as well. The emptiness feels cold, arrogant, tragic.
Janet says, I love the way something so simple can mean so much.
I say, It does seem so simple. But what does it mean?
She says, It means…well, I like to think it means you are your own pleasure.
I like that, I say.
We stand in silence for a minute.
She says, Stick out your tongue and let’s see what it says.
I face her. She faces me.
I feel self-conscious about my breath, about the color of my tongue.
She cups my chin firmly but with care. She tilts my head to the light.
I stick out my tongue and she leans in to read it.
She says, I would scrape the coating on your tongue. Curdy tongue it’s called. It can tell you a lot about a person’s health, but I haven’t washed my hands.
It’s ok, I say quickly, not wanting her to stop.
She doesn’t hesitate.
She touches my tongue. She slides a finger across it. She looks at it and smells it. Her face expressionless, clinical.
She does it again and this time she leaves her finger on my tongue for a second about to scrape it. But before she does, I close my mouth around her finger and hold it there.
She laughs but doesn’t pull her finger out.
I keep my mouth closed and shut my eyes. I imagine taking her entire hand into my mouth, her lips and crooked smile and chubby face into my mouth. I imagine other things: my daughter, my own heart, Jared’s cock. I imagine placing all the things I care about, all the things I love into my mouth. I imagine how full I would feel, how happy, how like a king.