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Let Me Tell You

 

i.

I couldn’t write anymore. It just wasn’t happening. You know what kind of writing I mean: the allegedly laudable kind. The kind I did back in the day, when I was too young to know or care about my limitations as an author. Too vain to realize that I wasn’t the center of the universe.

Back then, I was full of projects, words, and ideas, and I never had a problem turning things out. I published three novels and a handful of short stories and a bunch of other literary-related stuff: book reviews and essays. And I wrote a lot more than I ever published because, quite frankly, it wasn’t all good enough for publication. But that’s the way things go.

Everybody knows, whether they’ve done this kind of work or not, that writing is hard, and writing well is really hard. Things don’t always make that strange, dicey transition from thought to language, from idea to interesting narrative. But that’s okay, because it’s all to the good; even bad writing is good practice.

I used to say to people, when they asked, that writing was just a natural extension of my consciousness, an integral part of my conscious life, as natural as having a conversation with someone. Because it was. I just did it every day. I did it and hoped for the best, tried for the best. Maybe the Muse will blow in my ear today, or maybe she won’t. You just keep going; that’s what you do.

It used to be a steady and frictionless flow that at some vague point slowly became less steady and incrementally more abrasive until one day I realized—or finally acknowledged the reality—that I really wasn’t a writer anymore, because nothing was getting written. Instead, when I sat down at the keyboard, I just felt… puzzled. I’d say to myself, just write… just write… But that’s pretty much all I would do, talk to myself. The whole contraption had come to a wheezing, sputtering halt.

Now, I could probably come up with a bunch of reasons why this happened. It wasn’t one thing, or didn’t seem to be, but rather the diabolical intersection of internal and external changes, forces, realizations, distractions, etc. At first, I tried to dissect it, break it down, but I’ve long since given up on that; in the end, it really doesn’t matter why.

 

ii.

Let me tell you about the Tufts girl. It seems almost an invention.

I’d just spent two hours walking around the Isabel Stewart Gardner Museum, enough time for the unseasonably cool morning to warm into a bright, clean-smelling early fall day. The old army field jacket that was perfect when I set out was now a little too warm, but I didn’t feel like carrying it, so I left it on.

The first thing I did outside the museum was fish a cigarette out of one of the flapped pockets and start smoking it, waiting at the intersection for the traffic light to change. I’d spent as much time staring at some of the museum’s empty frames, the ones left in place after the famous art heist, as I did some of the artwork. There was mystery and heartbreak in those absences. I almost couldn’t bear it, but I also couldn’t stop looking.

The Tufts girl was sitting next to a bulging knapsack on the transit stop bench and reading a book. She looked up at me and smiled and we both said “Hi,” and then she went back to reading. I looked around a little like I was unsure of myself, then asked her if this was the stop that went downtown, and she said it was.

She was very thin, a little bit pale, had dark hair in a pixie cut, and she was pretty. I liked the way she propped her book on her crossed legs and hunched over it, absorbed. I sat on the bench, a little bit apart from her, and slouched, put my hands in my jacket pockets.

She asked me if I was from out of town and I said I was. I told her that I’d come to Boston on business, but that business was done and now I had a day to myself. We were still chatting when the train ground up hot and metallicky to the stop.

She took a window seat and smiled at me like, sure, it’s okay, so I sat next to her. She looked so young I thought she might even still be in high school, but then she told me she was on her way to a class at Tufts, where she was working on her graduate degree in some type of ancient literature.

Everything about her was a little care-worn, second-handish, near-shabby. But in a studenty way, not a poor way. She’d coated her trimmed fingernails in a dove-gray lacquer that was chipping at the ends. She wore studs in her earlobes, little pebbles of onyx, and one ear, her left, had a tiny silver ring piercing its helix. Her skinny black jeans were faded to a charcoal, and both knees had given out.

She had on a black, lightweight sweater, a pullover, that was pilled and snagged. Like something she’d picked up in a thrift store or, more likely, had been wearing since junior high school. When she got up to board the train with me, you could just tell from the way things were moving beneath that sweater that her small breasts were otherwise unrestrained. And as I sat next to her talking, I could see a tiny moth hole that revealed a pale spot of the bare flesh of the side of her breast. Lust like silver filigree threaded through me.

People make up stories like this all the time. I get that. Guys like me, guys who are delicately falling apart, losing their way because they don’t know what life is supposed to mean anymore, they fantasize about the girl at the train stop. They get home and ghost-stage that fantasy, the moving-picture show playing on the inside of their eyelids—such unlikely casting, but there it is. If only… if only… There it is in their secret dark space, that rank interior just this side of hopeless, wolfishly unspooling, until they reach that inevitable, soporific release: a mere heartbeat of bliss. Would that it could happen. What might we do then?

Let me tell you about the Tufts girl and the thing I couldn’t quite grasp—this parallel line my thoughts were following as we continued to ask and answer each other’s casual little question, passing time on the train; she was interested in talking to me.

She had to perceive that I was probably twice her age. I am aware of how the male psyche, my psyche, can twist and pervert the most innocent transaction into evidence of something more. An irrationality borne of desire can cloud a mind and nature far less troubled and chaotic than mine.

Still, as all men of a certain age know, know so well that they can’t even bring themselves to say it out loud, that at that certain age and beyond, we become less and less visible. We become blurry and translucent, just obscure shapes gliding about in the living, working, breathing world.

The cashier bags our bottle of Stoli and hands it over without once meeting our eyes; the waitress recites the specials looking off into the middle-distance like she’s talking to someone at another table; the girl at the train stop never looks up from the book she’s reading to acknowledge you because, really, there’s no one to acknowledge.

One day you’re a flesh-and-blood participant in the planet’s doings and then your hair starts to gray and the corners of your eyes sprout lines, and you’re gone. Just another wraith, vague with yearning, moving spectrally through the increasingly thinning air of your increasingly formless narrative.

I suppose there are still certain adepts among us who can see ghosts. I figured the Tufts girl was one. I kept testing her, trying to let the conversation drop, not asking her more questions, giving her an out, but she kept coming back to me.

But still, there was nothing to be done about it. I sunk down a bit in my seat and spread my legs apart slightly. The motion of the train might innocently bring my knee in contact with her thigh. The electricity of that was the most I could hope for.

She asked me what I liked best at the museum.

“The Sargeants,” I said. “El Jaleo and the portrait of Mrs. Gardner. I couldn’t stop looking.”

“Sometimes when I look at portraits like that,” she said, meaning the Gardner, “I wonder how that person smelled when they were sitting for it.” I don’t know why I didn’t think this was an odd thing to say, but I didn’t.

“Right. Daily hot showers were probably not part of the Gilded Age routine. But I’m sure the elegant Mrs. Gardner smelled like tea roses,” I said. “And persimmons.”

She flicked me a side-wise glance, her eyebrows arched, an expression either of surprise or curiosity or something else, I couldn’t tell what, nor did I know it’s source. Things went quiet for a slightly longer moment then. Once again, I let it lay, giving her an out, and we listened to the train’s rhythmic cha-chuck of wheels and rails, thinking private thoughts.

“So,” she said finally. “It’s still early. What are you going to do now? Will you just… go back to your hotel room?”

I turned to her and shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so. I don’t have any other plans.”

This time she gave me what seemed like an embarrassed little smile and quickly looked away. Like when an unexpected idea, and the good sense not to say it, flits across a person’s mind.

I found the tiny moth hole in her sweater again and looked at it. Then at a small slice of bare flesh at her back, where the train seat had hiked her sweater up above the waist of her jeans. I wanted to touch two fingers to it like a doctor does when he’s examining you, pressing around your abdomen trying to find if death has found its way in. My heart took up a titanic pounding.

“Why?” I said. “Do you want to come with me? Play hooky?”

She just kept staring straight ahead at the back of the seat in front of her, fiddling with the straps of the knapsack on her lap.

 

iii.

I’m not supposed to tell you this because we have myths to maintain, mysteries to promulgate and, ideally, deepen so that we may preserve some of the passing luster that we still possess to at least some of the lay population, but here’s a truth: there is no such thing as “writer’s block.” It doesn’t exist.

Unless you’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury, you can always write. You might not do it as well as you think you once did it; your skills may have begun to tail off (and will continue to). That thing that gave your sentences that flare and sizzle and pop, that crackerjack bounce engendered by enthusiasm, inexperience, and vanity, succumbs to the moderating censure of a lived life.

We are chastened by all we know, the greater part of which consists of the recognition of all we don’t know. We wrestle with that surly angel that is the Past, a two-headed scourge: the Past is gone; the Past won’t go away. And, of course, Memory, that was once a gift so lightly borne, and sat in proportionate companionship with Imagination, becomes a bloated, unkempt, unreliable tagalong. Sometimes it inserts itself into the formerly purer process of make believe and then, when actually called upon, it seizes up, shuts down: an unexpected error has caused this application to close. Fuck all.

But it’s not a block, not a dam or a seawall that stops you from making the kinds of sentences you want to make, the kind of sentences you perceive that you once made. Rather, the place of invention seems barren and imponderable and spookily silent. And the quieter you try to be, the harder you try to listen, to hear something, anything in this vast sand-waste that was once your wild Oz, the louder the booming of your blood pounding in your head becomes.

If the muse is speaking sentences to you, she can’t be heard. Though she may not be. Speaking sentences to you, that is. If that’s the case, it’s best to stand in ignorance of such wretched emptiness. Persist in one’s ignorance of that. No, a block, a wall would be preferable to this. At least you would have something to beat your fists against. And sometimes walls fall. But nothing grows here, in this scorched and salted plain.

Yes, I know, you’re saying, “Well, aren’t you really over-dramatizing this a bit? After all, here you are right now making sentences.” That’s true but… these aren’t the kind of sentences I’m talking about. I’ve never understood the compulsion to write about oneself. Where is the fun in that? And where is the challenge?

One can write about oneself endlessly just as one can talk about oneself endlessly: a great feast that starves the guests. It reminds me of the poet Robert Frost’s dismissal of free verse; it’s like playing tennis without a net.

 

iv.

Something in my chest was hammering and squirming wildly when I touched the Tufts girl for the first time, touched her upper arm lightly and ran my fingers down slowly, slowly over her wrist and into the upturned palm of her small hand. She shivered and fell against me, me with my body quaking and my skin everywhere on fire. Her lips felt cool against my neck at first, then quickly less so.

She found my mouth with her own and fed me her tongue, wet and strong and alive. Her smooth, gently dangling breasts first filled my hands until I shoved the sweater high up her chest so I could see them and taste them. Such tender, pliant, youthful flesh, pinked and puffy at their peaks as if they’d already been avidly, lengthily sucked.

Her little fingers skittered inquiringly around the front of my trousers before finding the erection stiffening along the inside of my thigh. I opened her jeans and tried to slide my hand down the front, but they were skin tight. After a brief, embattled tangle of hands trying to get at one another, I yanked her jeans and panties halfway down her legs. She immediately turned and fell across the foot of one of the room’s two queen beds, the unmade one.

From behind, there was no hair that I could see between her legs. She was bare down there, just smooth undulating folds of wine-dark labia. Her arms were outstretched, and she took in fistfuls of bedding as I pushed slowly inside her. She was slick and snug and grasping. Her little ass was high and round and I helped myself to two handfuls of it, kneading its plush softness, spreading it slightly into a more wanton parting.

I fucked the Tufts girl from behind on the hotel bed for several minutes before rolling her onto her back. I was cantilevered above her, arms stiffly planted on either side of her, and her own hands found and gripped my forearms as I moved in and out of her, studying her: her head turned and eyes hard shut; the black onyx bud in her ear glinting on and off as she rocked from my thrusts, her small pretty breasts swaying.

This couldn’t, and didn’t, last long, but long enough to be respectable. I pulled out and she kindly took me in hand without a pause and stroked me as I spurted cum on the gentle plane of her belly.

Let me tell you about the Tufts girl. She was lithe and cream-colored and without flaw. I moved my hands over her perfectly flat tummy and sharp hips. In my closer examination, I found she’d left a vertical stripe of close-trimmed hair, light as a pencil shading, as punctuation atop the smooth cleft between her legs. I kissed her there, and all around her stomach and hips, which still smelled like my semen though I’d wiped her clean.

She watched me explore, sometimes closing her eyes when I applied lips to those heartbreaking vales and rises. She let me roll her onto her side; she rested her head on an outstretched arm and bent one leg beneath the other and struck a pose like a sleeping nude: her beautiful topology of contours, shoulder blade and jutting hip and curve of buttock, and all their delicate turns and deltas of shadow and light.

I kissed the nape of her neck and down the notched line of her spine, and over a hillock of soft, pliant cheek. I kissed down into her dark heat, the flushed folds of sex between her closed legs. She sighed then and rolled back toward me and spread her thighs.

The Tufts girl whispered “oh fuck,” soft as a passing thought, just before she came. These were the first words that either one of us had spoken since she followed me off the train. There was a heaving torsion, and slim thighs firmly clamping my head so there was no mistake about what was happening, and the airy “oh fuck,” and the taste of her changing from nutty-spicy to something like iron.

 

v.

“Why did you come here with me?”

“You asked me.”

“That’s all it took?”

“A little bit of talking myself into it, too. It’s not the kind of thing I do. Have ever done.”

“Yeah, well, me neither.”

“So, when I got off the train with you at your stop, were you like, ‘Holy shit, now what do I do?’”

“Something like that, I guess. Or maybe not so much. I don’t know. I haven’t been myself recently, so some things that I do or say or think can be a bit of a surprise to me these days. Like when I asked you if you wanted to come with me. But the way you asked me what I was going to do next, if I was just going to return to my hotel room… something about that particular question struck me as odd. The way it was phrased, I guess.”

“And the fact that I don’t know who you are and that we would probably never see each other ever again…”

“But I can’t say I thought that. That I made that kind of… risk assessment. It just came out. I regretted it, though, almost immediately. I thought that I’d just ruined a perfectly nice conversation and with a perfectly nice girl.”

“But not after I got off the bus with you.”

“There were still plenty of opportunities for you to change your mind.”

“And I did. Like, twenty times. Back and forth. Common sense trying to win the battle over intuition.”

“Intuition? What did you intuit?”

“That this was okay. That you were okay. That I wasn’t in danger or anything. I mean, I knew that it still could be kind of a bust. Five minutes and a mouthful of cum and then you’re shoving me out the door.”

“Well, there was certainly a chance of that. But not the shoving-out-the-door part.”

“You didn’t strike me that way. But to answer your original question, I’m just attracted to older men. I don’t know why exactly. It’s not like any of that daddy issue stuff. But I’ve never really tried to figure it out because there doesn’t seem to be any point to it, and there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it either. It just is.”

“But you’ve never done this before.”

“I’ve slept with a couple of my professors. Yeah, I’m a cliché, I know, you don’t need to tell me. But no, I’ve never done something like this before. Being attracted to older men is different from having sex with them.”

“What do you mean?”

“There aren’t too many situations that don’t turn creepy. Usually, as soon as I start to talk to an older guy, like I talked with you today, they get all creepy and leery. Like, immediately. Lewd innuendo. ‘You’re so hot, your boyfriend is a really lucky guy.’ Or, ‘You’re so pretty, I’m getting hard just talking to you.’ Shit like that. The attraction pretty much goes away at that point. Then I just feel like some piece for them to perv on. A hole they need to penetrate. Very yucky.”

“Well, sexual desire or lust can turn a man’s brain against itself. Like some kind of autoimmune disease, a fever that shuts down reason or propriety or decorum or politeness. The need to address that lust almost feels like it’s out of your control, it’s making you do things or say things. You can feel yourself sprouting a tail and horns, but you can’t stop it.”

“But you controlled it. Seemed so, anyway.”

“Sort of. Not entirely. I got a little loose with my limbs there on the train, hoping that maybe ‘acccidently’ my knee might touch yours, or maybe my upper arm would brush against yours.”

“Like taking the temperature of the situation, right? If I flinched or gathered myself in…”

“Right. Because most of the time, when a guy thinks a woman is showing interest in him, or would be receptive to his flirting with her, it’s really all in his head. He’s just imagining it because he wants it to be true so badly.”

“This is how one of those professors I mentioned explained it to me, and I believe it because it happens all the time. Men, especially older men, try to sexualize themselves. They want you to think about them as a sexual being so you can imagine them as a sexual partner. They’re afraid that you’re going to view them as someone’s dad, or an uncle, or just some asexual drone. So they try to sexualize themselves, they make sexual allusions or innuendos, or talk about—seriously, I’m not making this up—how many times a week they screw their wives and how satisfied the women are. Or how some waitress, sales clerk, cashier, or skirt they met at a hotel bar was hitting on them. ‘Look at me, I’m a man, I’m potent, I’m experienced.’ I mean, I get it, I do, sort of. Except it doesn’t change the way I’m looking at that guy the way he hopes it will. Just the opposite. It just makes him seem…”

“Lecherous?”

“Yeah, lecherous. I was going to say creepy again, but lecherous is much better.”

“Well, I guess I should take some consolation that I managed to conceal my lechery.”

“You were a gentleman. Except for that one little suspect thing, you didn’t say anything that creeped me out.”

“You mean the accidental knee bump thing? You caught that?”

“No, not that. That bit about Mrs. Gardner smelling like persimmons.”

“That was something?”

“Not intentional? Because I thought it was very clever, as far as innuendos go. Extremely subtle.”

“I really have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Persimmons. A lot of people apparently find the smell of persimmons to be very similar to the smell of semen.”

“Honestly, I’ve never heard that. So then, what? Did you think that was my play? That I was trying to seduce you by making a reference to semen?”

“Hey, I wasn’t sure, I didn’t know. I can’t tell you how many interactions I’ve had with men where they somehow manage to find a way to work in data about the size of their cocks, or how big of a load they shoot. And cunnilingus skills, of course. That’s the go-to bit. All the raves they get when they go down. A lot of guys have this really distorted sense of what women find erotic because they get all their information from porn. Which maybe is useful if you’re dealing with women who get all their information from porn. It’s all rather disheartening and dingy.”

“Like I said, sometimes the hunger overmatches our better sense.”

“Don’t get me wrong, okay. I want to be wanted. Sometimes I want to be wanted so bad that I feel like I’m dissolving, that my entire body is liquifying. It’s just that…”

“Not all wanting is the same sort of thing. Good manners go a long way I guess.”

“Well, hey, I still have to be physically attracted to the person, too. I mean, I’m not going to suck a guy’s dick just because he holds a door open for me.”

“Really? Damn. That’s my go-to move.”

“You’re really very funny, you know?”

“I’m not funny. I’m confused. Lost. Self-absorbed. Maybe pathetic. But otherwise in a good place.”

“It sounds like I caught you at the right time.”

“That thing about persimmons? Is that true?”

“Oh, I have no idea. I’m not around a lot of… persimmons.”

 

vi.

John Updike once wrote of “the precarious feat it is to write a novel, organizing a host of inventions and polished details into a single movement toward resolution. Like sex, it is either easy or impossible.”

Also, like sex, it can be very fun and feel very good. Climbing the steps to my study each evening to continue the work on a novel I was writing filled me with the same type of premonitory thrill I once felt on my way to meet a lover. It might not end up being a night of unforgettable passion, or maybe not as hot, intense, and gratifying as the last time we were together. It might not have quite that zesty mix of purposefulness and serendipity. But then again…

As occasionally happens with even the most compatible and amorous couple, sometimes the union doesn’t go as one hoped or imagined. Psychologies and emotions are desperately complex things, bodies are inconsistent and unreliable, to say nothing of the phases of the moon, the music of the spheres. But the center of this secret world is still molten, still hotly alive, roiling at the core. There is always the next night, and the next, and the next.

Let me tell you about the truest of the hot, dark similarities of writing and fucking: despite both being acts of creation, re-creation (and, I suppose, recreation), in their most intense and intensely felt essences, in the most minute particulars of their mechanics, they are deeply transgressive performances.

They trap us in a place that seems outside of what we’ve come to perceive as accustomed realms of space and time. When we’re interrupted, when someone walks in on us, the shock is not the surprise of being caught; the shock is that there is someone else at all.

During one overly long wait for an appointment with my dermatologist (a long, pop-eyed woman who likes to hum), I read an article in a Ladies Home Journal about the psycho profiles of mass murderers, pedophiles, and serial killers, and their psychic triptych of public, private, and secret worlds.

Their secret worlds—lushly chambered and depraved, rule-less spaces—come to dominate their conscious lives, and ultimately require incipient small acts to keep them viable and developed. What was once scarcely imaginable becomes indispensable. Acts become less small. You’ve all seen enough of this depicted in books, shows, movies, etc. The Hannibal Lecters never emerge fully formed. They’re careful, exacting gods refining themselves into monsters.

But we all have secret worlds, that sub-rosa hidey-hole beneath the floorboards of the private one. Or maybe it’s behind a sliding panel in the private world’s wall; a two-way mirror in the private world’s main chamber; the eyes cut out of the portrait of great-great-grandfather hanging on the private world’s paneled wall.

“What a person does in the privacy of his or her own bedroom is his or her own business.” Yes, but there is more beneath that, the transgressive part, the part that feeds a hunger, that enriches a madness, and transcends everyday life.

When I sat in front of my keyboard, the pile of printed pages on my left growing delightfully (or, as I think about it now, miraculously) thicker by two or three pages each night, I felt like I was doing something… well, not wrong, but certainly something secret.

Something that I didn’t want anyone to know about. I know, that seems counter to what, for most, is the ultimate goal of writing a book: you want everyone to know about it in the end, and be astonished by it and you, and feel their perceptions heightened, their worlds expanded, their realities changed.

But the act of it, the process, the daily make-work of those innumerable small, hard choices and decisions, that the words, and then the sentences, and then the paragraphs will go this way and no other, out of all the incalculable possible variations, and that it has all been done in a way that hides the sutures and seams, that this was one continuous, magical, beauteous outpouring that could only have ever been exactly the way it is… all this must remain behind the curtain. So that when we finally reveal it, with a flourish, the gasps are audible. This is what I do when no one is looking…

 

vii.

The Tufts girl confessed that she was starving, hadn’t eaten anything all day, so I offered to buy her lunch in the hotel’s lobby restaurant. The elevator’s stainless-steel doors reflected us without much distortion, and I turned away from the image, the juxtaposition in that pairing; we cast, I imagined, a more familial appearance, and I felt a small discomfiting pang. I focused on her feet in their worn Converse All-Stars, and when I looked up, she was watching me, bemused I thought.

“I’m in a really good mood right now,” she smiled.

It was the tag end of the lunch hour and the tables were mostly empty. I ordered a house salad that I hardly touched, concentrating instead on two double Stolis on the rocks with a twist of lemon peel. I watched the Tufts girl demolish a large turkey club and a pile of French fries, a gleaming, overdressed Caesar salad, and three big tumblers of sweetened iced tea.

“Drinking vodka in the middle of the day would knock me right out,” she said.

“That’s what I’m counting on,” I said. “It’s all downhill from here.”

“Don’t say that.”

“It was a compliment.”

“It just sounds a little maudlin,” she said. “You don’t want me to think of you as pitiable, do you?”

“No, you’re right, I don’t.” And I didn’t. Considering, as I did just then, that of all the people on the planet she was one of two, at most, who were thinking about me at all. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sure it’s the vodka.”

“You were very sweet to me,” she leaned in and whispered over the caddy of sweetener packets, the salt and pepper shakers, the unlit votive at the bottom of a gilt glass globe. “And very… intimate. Tender. I could never have expected such a thing from someone I just met.”

“You’re like a miracle to me,” I said. “A dream.”

“The next time, if there ever is a next time, my intuition will probably fail me. And when I’m waiting for the guy to just get it over with, I’ll be thinking about today. And you.”

“Now it’s my turn to say ‘Don’t say that.’ I don’t want to have to imagine you in any such situation. But you seem pretty savvy. You don’t have any reason to think your intuition will fail you.”

“No,” she said, pulling a phone out of her knapsack. “More likely I will fail it. Did you ever notice now just a modest amount of alcohol can turn intuition into impulse?” She swiped the screen and frowned at it for a moment, then put it back.

“I’m going to have to get going,” she said. “I’ve got another class this afternoon that I definitely need to attend. Um… would you mind terribly if we went back upstairs so I could use your bathroom? All this iced tea.”

I woke up my computer and checked email and Skype while the Tufts girl used the bathroom.

“I’ll see you out,” I said when she finally emerged.

“You don’t have to.”

“No, it’s okay. I’m going down anyway. Going to stand outside and smoke a cigarette in some permissible area.”

“Your generation and tobacco,” she shook her head, lowered her shoulder so her backpack slid down her arm and hit the floor with a book-thick thunk.

We embraced, and I put my arms around her tightly, pulled her hard against me, her slender torso enfolded, feeling the outline of her ribs, the sharp press of her hips against my thighs, then letting my hand drift over the hollow of her narrow back—taking a tactile inventory, trying to impress her forever in memory’s amber. When I finally loosened my hold on her, she slipped to her knees and took my belt buckle.

“When’s the last time you had a young woman suck you off?” she said.

“Probably when I was a young man.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Too long.”

Bringing into sharp relief, unintentionally, our chronological disparity, which registered both as a rueful sting and whoosh of hot blood.

“You don’t have to do this,” I said.

The Tufts girl gently smiled at me as she kept undoing my trousers, as casually as if she was tying my sneaker before sending me off to catch the school bus.

 

viii.

I’m more than a little disdainful of the concept currently in tiny vogue of the “unreliable narrator.” In fiction, semi-fiction, or non-fiction, if we can’t rely on our narrator, whom can we rely upon in this escapist game? So at this point, you’re not going to read something like, “truth is, the Tufts girl never got off the train with me.” This isn’t some pathetic little fantasy. More like a pathetic little reality.

If I’d made this up, believe me, it would have been a hell of a lot dirtier. And the Tufts girl would have had a blonde roommate that she called to join us straightaway to make it a threesome. I might have even accoutered the blonde roommate with a strap-on, just to give my jalopy of an imagination a slightly more challenging track to ramble over, since I’ve never had anything stuck in my ass for recreational purposes. And there wouldn’t have been so much goddamned conversation.

 

*

You think that you’ll always have this, no matter what. People come and go, fortunes rise and fall, but you’ll always have your vocation, and your passion for it. You don’t care if you become famous or wealthy (though you have plenty of moments, usually involving a little alcohol, daydreaming about that kind of thing).

Famous or not, you still feel the thrill when you close yourself away and slip, sidewise and silently, into that secret world, the new reality that you invent and describe. It’s part you and part something else, something ineffable. You want to keep going there and have those experiences, rambling over those Escherian stairwells in that strange palace in your mind.

At the same time, we know, intellectually, that it’s delusional to think that anything will last forever. Get it while you can, strike while the iron is hot, make hay while the sun shines, etc. Still, the heat of that iron is of such intensity that you can’t imagine that you will ever stop feeling its glow, or that you will ever lack a hammer of at least some precision and weight to beat it into fetching shape.

 

ix.

I propped myself against one of the glass-cladded columns that held up the hotel’s entry overhang. The cigarette I was smoking made me light-headed. The vodka had already settled heavily in my bones and veins and left me with a muddy feeling.

I’d missed, or passed, the happy window, that buzzy not-straight-not-drunk bridge space where everything seems promising, makes sense: your ideas are good, your handwriting is still legible; you feel, somewhere in the back of conscious thought, that the things you’ve been pondering and fretting over might actually snap together, Lego-like, cleanly and cleverly.

That it all does make sense—you’ve just been too tight, too uptight, too weedy and dark and questioning. This little interlude… it’s short and fey, so there’s a kind of magic to it. Can’t life, all of life, just be like this precise moment forever? That is, not drunk, but getting there. The cusp of the thing always radiates more charm that the thing itself. “All promise outstrips performance,” sayeth Emerson.

Well, not always. The deft hands and fairy-tender mouth of the Tufts girl provided a rare, indelible exception. Her promise, her stated intent, as potent as it was, was still not as powerful as her careful, charming, solicitous attentions. She’d pulled off her threadbare sweater so I could see and touch her dangling breasts.

I watched her, my disbelief suspended: watched her as she moved her small hand with its tiny, dove-gray nails and her soft lips back and forth along the stiff shaft of my cock. I looked at our reflection in the full-length mirror tacked to the closet door, a frank tableau, a pornographic trope, her on her knees servicing my obdurate lust, her narrow back and visible ribs, her young ass sweet and round in her tight faded jeans. I touched her cheek and she raised her eyes to look at me as she continued to stroke and suck my shiny, swollen prick.

My knees began to tremble, and I must have closed my eyes against the burgeoning climax because I heard her say, “Look at me.”

I did. I looked at her twisting her little hand along my length as she pressed her extended tongue to the underside of my cockhead, and I groaned and cursed under my breath and spurted semen into her mouth. Then she engulfed me completely, making affectionate little murmurs of approval (whether real or pretended, it didn’t matter; it was still a gift) as my spasms subsided and she swallowed my cum.

And as I became, however briefly, visible. For the better part of an afternoon, I was a solid presence in the world. I could see myself there, in that mirror, all flesh and fevered blood.

But, as I said, only briefly.

 

x.

When you write, you’re not doing it for other people, you’re doing it for yourself. That makes it sound like some narcissistic or egocentric activity, but it’s not. You’re trying to figure something out. You’re writing to find out how much you know about people and life and the world, and how it all goes together, moves about, flies apart, and so on. It may not seem like a lot—what you know—but it’s always more than you realize or give yourself credit for. Because you have to dig deep to do this, and when you dig deep, you find things that you didn’t know were there.

You create characters, conjure up their lives, their pasts, construct a world around them, move them about, have some things happen to them, then figure out what they’re going to do about it. That’s how you learn. That’s how you learn empathy and compassion. That’s how you gain knowledge, maybe even acquire some wisdom.

That’s how you learn how happiness occurs, or how the darker things—regret, loss, failure, disappointment—are assimilated, endured, and maybe even transformed. You create a moral universe that gives life, real life, or at least parts of it, some comprehensible shape and contour—a patterning that approaches something meaningful. This creation of yours is the very soul of artifice, a stylized version of life, because real life is not a story or a novel; real life just goes on and on and on until it stops, and nobody knows what it means.

 

xi.

The afternoon had become overcast beneath two different strata of clouds: wispy tatters of blue-gray dragging across a ceiling of waxen white. I grabbed the Tufts girl’s hand and brought it to my lips, gave it a little shake and let it go. She smiled at me, then turned and stepped into the flow of the world moving along the sidewalk.

I watched her, watched her stop and scan the sky, then check her phone before wedging it into her back pocket, and head off briskly, purposefully, up Tremont. Like someone with plenty of places to go and people to meet and stuff to say.

I knew what she probably felt like, remembered it, such unimprovable moments, a perfect exhilaration incited by nothing at all, simply by being who she was in this place and time at this moment in her life, walking down a lively street on a mild spring afternoon under a pearlescent sky. Striding into dreams and decisions and longings. Such an array of moments still to be had, such a bright abundance...

But my brief reappearance in this world, this unexpected day trip into solidity, was already coming to a close. Standing there, I felt my own self-losing mass, growing as flimsy and fleeting as those rags of drifting clouds, suffused with a cool, powdery light, lunar-frail. By the time the Tufts girl was swallowed up by the rest of the real world and out of sight, I was gone.

 

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