The phone lay horizontally across three-fourths of the toaster slots, leaning against a spiral light bulb pack, aimed so the camera framed me from crotch to curls.
A royal tie limp about my neck. Leather belt looped but unbuckled. The sateen shirt, hemmed for last year's waistline, showed hints of the work I'd done this last week in the basement with barbells and a punching bag, but that was just a tease. The rest was in tonight's photos. I buttoned myself. Looped the tie. Did the cuffs. Tucked it all. Threw on the sport coat.
The final touch for our date, an olfactory tease to draw her in: cologne.
I spritzed a cloud.
Then dashed through before it settled too heavily.
It was four hours till our date.
A black loose-weaved cardigan cinched Priya’s lean curves with the camera angled strategically to cover where other clothes should’ve been. I saw her like never before.
We hadn’t started the call. Video wouldn’t work. We always tried but it never did. Not Tanzania to US. Tanzania to South Korea. South Korea to Saudi Arabia. This would be the first attempt at Saudi to US, but it wouldn’t work.
“Can we try?” I pleaded over IMs. “Are you ready?”
Her previews were pixel-painted across the 72-inch flat-screen, cycling through the three she’d sent, every transition more tantalizing. Wireless keyboard across my lap, a bottle of KY in the crease of the recliner. Blinds closed. An abstinent week of build-up except in my dreams. My mouse hovered over the call button. I was ready.
“Can we wait?”
I zipped up my pants. “Is your family still there?”
“They’ve gone till 5:00. That’s when they said to start dinner anyway.” She was 8 hours ahead and it was 9:00 am her time. Plenty of time. “You’ll probably fall asleep before then. How’s Lady?”
“Snoring on my parents’ bed haha She’s been a lapdog since I got back, but she weighs almost as much as you except with claws that sink in when she hugs.”
“She’s missed her boy. Lucky girl.”
“A little,” she admitted.
“If you’re not ready, we can wait.”
“I already made you wait.”
“And I’m fine waiting another year. Two. Ten. Forever if you’re never ready.”
“I suggested this.”
“We can have a normal call. A date without expectations. The furthest we’ll venture is that trembling, furtive moment as my hand slides towards yours for the first time.”
“I want to. For you,” she insisted. “Why me?”
“That’s what I always come back to. You could have anyone.”
“We both know that’s not true. I’ve had one prior girlfriend. For two weeks. This is my longest, most stable relationship.”
“If you’d just talk to strangers. You’re very charming. And we like your golden curls. You know all these amazing people: a pro boxer, a pilot, other writers, people who have traveled and held jobs and can give you a normal life, but you’re stuck with a nobody.”
“You know how special Lady is to me? I locked her away for the night after 20 months apart while you and I have talked nearly every day. I’d still rather spend tonight with you. You’re everything to me.”
“Why? Why me?”
“I haven’t told you about the prophecy that old blind woman told me in Korea? You’re the chosen one. Destined to change the world.”
“No, you’ve never told me this blind Korean woman story.”
“She’s actually Dutch-Irish. I just met her in Korea.”
“I don’t have a satisfying answer. The standard compliments. You’re smart, caring; you have the straightest face when teasing me so I’m about to have a heart attack before you let me in on the joke.
“It’s not just that you have a nice butt, either,” I continued. “You do, evident by the preview. But mostly you let me be me, even if I’m scared to. While I was playing photographer earlier, I saw myself puffing out the waistband of my athletic shorts, but it’s no more than last time and you seemed like you liked those. You asked for more. So I ignored my self-scrutiny to take 12 photos for you.”
“12? I don’t have 12. I had 7 and you’ve already seen 3!”
“Hey, it’s okay. Those 3 are better than all of mine. They’re each beautiful, distinct stories. Mine are just one story, slowly unfolding. It’s just a boy and his towel and while you’ll love the ending, they can’t compare to even your previews.”
“I want to do this.”
“We will. When you’re ready. Maybe a regular call will loosen you up, but if it doesn’t, we can just talk.”
I clicked the call button. It dialed. The video didn’t work, but even the audio was never secure. The connection often mechanized our voices or she’d hear me but I wouldn’t hear her or she’d be seconds behind or it’d connect for a greeting but drop before the pleasantries. That was why I always started with “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she said. There was a happy lilt to her accent. “I think this is the first time I’ve been this nervous with you.” When she got excited, her words rolled like in her Arabic. It was contagious excitement. “It’s always so simple. Never any pressure.”
“Not even now?”
“I’m only nervous because I want it to be perfect. It won’t be. I know that, but I want it anyway. I’m sorry.”
“Please don’t be.”
“It’s just that I tried with James for his sake. I never liked it so it wasn’t often and even those previews are more than he ever saw. You like them, right?”
“Love them,” I said as the next flicked across the screen.
“You better. When it was over, I had given him all these personal moments that I wanted back. And I trust you, but I trusted him too.”
The connection buzzed during our silence.
“What if I tell you something that has me shaking just thinking about admitting for the first time?” I asked, adjusting myself in the leather chair so it squeaked under me. “Maybe by trusting you with this, it’ll open you up too.
“Please don’t say anything till the end.”
Thinking back, it happened during a few months between 2nd and 3rd grade, but it felt like years.
Derek had moved into the brick house catty-cornerfrom mine. I'd just gotten turtle rimmed glasses. Still had my platinum blonde bowl cut and Mom dressed me in sweater vests. I was making progress with Dr. Hannah, my speech therapist. We played this game where we rolled plastic pigs and got points if they landed on their feet or were touching another. If one was on top of each other from behind, I had to yell "Sooie!" I just realized why that was worth the most points.
Anyway, Evan and I were staying at Derek's. He was a year older but held back in kindergarten but a big kid regardless--his head was too big for our Little League helmets. But he was scared of spending the night away from home. He'd cry. So we stayed at his house. There were two water beds and a small TV with a built-in VCR sitting on a wooden stool.
In those days, everyone had cable or static. Satellite wasn’t really a thing yet. 45 was Cartoon Network: Johnny Bravo, Dexter's Lab, Cow & Chicken. 34 was Nickelodeon: Angry Beavers, Rugrats, AHH! Real Monsters.
For most families, 25 and 26 were ants. Snow, fuzz, whatever you called it. But Derek got them. HBO and Cinemax. They played movies with swears. One night, according to the TV Guide channel, Cinemax was finishing Terminator. We were obsessed because our parents didn't want us seeing parts and fast forwarded most. That night we caught the credits.
Then a warning came on: TV-MA.
The girl was kissing the guy. Down there. On his thing. He liked it.
We knew we shouldn't watch and had the sound low. Evan put his ear to the speaker. “That's silly,” he said. “Why's he so happy?”
Derek and I just watched. We didn't understand, maybe we almost did, but we definitely wanted to.
We got naked like they did. Derek made me try it on him first as he watched. We'd been running all evening playing ghost in the graveyard till dark. It was salty. Then he made Evan.
“Evan's better,” he said like it was soccer and he was picking teams.
Then he made me do it to Evan then Evan to me. We didn't understand.
Next time Derek had chigger bites there. Red marks from grass bugs. His mom had seen when giving him a bath and that's how he knew what they were. He made me do it again anyway.
Sometimes we stood in a circle in the back yard with our pants down and everything touching.
Then he told an older boy, Blair, 6th grade. He didn't believe Derek so he made me show him. It was different with him. It was bigger and he made noises and moved his hips and it was wet and salty at the end and I didn't want to anymore. But I had to. They made me. Not forced, but coerced. Teased.
When my mom took me to register for 3rd grade. We saw Mrs. Wagner and Derek there. “You're with my Derek this year!” she said.
When we got to the car, I cried to my mom. “I don't like Derek anymore.”
Kids are like that. One day friends, one day not. Over little things. So she called the school and my test scores put me in the gifted program.
“Derek's parents found out and yelled and swore and threatened to tell Evan’s parents and I wondered if they did or if my parents knew or know now. I've never told anyone. I just buried it and cried after I saw him at school even in high school when he was a baseball and football star, still close with Evan, slinging ‘Fag’ around at any kid with a haircut he didn’t like. Even me. Think that moron even remembered?”
The poor connection’s static listened closely and I thought the call might’ve dropped and I’d have to say it again and I wondered if I could without throwing up.
“I love you,” she said.
“There's more but I don't want to burden you with too much."
"There's no such thing as too much between us. We can survive anything so please, when you're ready, you can tell me anything."
"It wasn't just my mouth.
"And this next part is really messed up in a way so please don't judge me, but when I was a teenager, angsty and hormonal, jerking off was the easiest way to cope and when it got really bad, when I was in bed crying that no one liked me despite having a lunch table-worth of friends that disproved that, I felt that old life creeping back like self-destructive pleasure. So that makes me a masochist or something. I was just so far gone, submissive which no man should be, right? And I thought I was secretly gay, which in high school, everyone used that as an insult so I felt shame when I did that and shame when they said it, especially Derek or Evan who were in my gym classes with gym lockers right by mine, and I still carry it with me but sometimes I'm feeling so low that I need that taboo pleasure."
Reclaiming an old trauma as a current fetish might seem fucked up but it was therapy, a release I'd never gotten. She was intuitive enough to know that. Kind enough not to judge. I hope you will be too.
"I love you," she said again because what else was there to say in this situation?
"It's dealt with. I don't cry over it much. Just shake. A little. But I don't want it buried from you.”
She said, “I’ve sent you four emails. You can’t open them until I tell you and you can’t touch till I tell you and you definitely can’t finish until I tell you. I’ll tease you like you like and make you beg until you’re mine.”
“Yes, my goddess.”