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--- L I N H D I N H
Last month I was in Trenton waiting for the train to Philadelphia. There were maybe twenty people standing on the platform. A woman to my left, her back turned away from me, was wearing a yellow sweat shirt, embroidered with the cartoon character Scooby D oo, over a print dress patterned with dancing chili peppers--a chili-spangled dress. She had on Doc Marten's boots. She was very tall, about 5-10, with dirty blonde hair. Something about her posture was oddly familiar: feet spread wide, groin tucked back, belly out, gravity centered. Her meaty hands were clasped behind her back over her non-buttocks. Do I know this woman?
When she turned sideways, I checked out her profile: small yet lumpy nose; pointy chin; round, protruding forehead--all in all, not a very attractive woman. And then it dawned on me: it was Valentino! a boy I once dated for five tumultuous months three years ago. Rather than risking an encounter, I went back inside the station. I don't think he saw me.
From the time I was 12 to the time I left home at the age of 17, my two household chores were 1) taking the garbage out once a week, and 2) washing the dishes on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday (my mother took care of the other days). Although I did not mind either chore, I particularly enjoyed washing dishes. I would stand at the sink, with my feet spread wide, my groin tucked back, my belly out, gravity centered, sponge in hand, and go to work. I enjoyed the contact of suds on skin and never wore those faggoty pale pink latex rubber gloves. I was an exceptionally competent dishwasher, maybe the best ever, with a clean repertoire of hand movements to minimize expenditure of time and detergent. The objective was to eradicate grease and food scum from each vessel without abrading the aluminum on a frying pan or tarnishing the tender glaze of a fragile tea cup. You do not want to injure your dishes. Dish washing is a civilizing act. It's not just a coda and bookend to eating but a counterbalance, nay, a refutation, to its organic consequence. At the end of each session, as a reward for a job well done, I would keep my hands beneath the faucet, under very hot water, for maybe a minute.
There was a risk to this indulgence, however. Sometimes, I would be so transported by hot water running over my hands that I would stand there for not one, but two minutes. That's when evil thoughts would seep into my consciousness. I would think, for example, of pulling my pants down, right there in the kitchen, with my mother watching TV a few feet away in the living room. (She wouldn't have been able to see me, but, still, she was only a few feet away.) Or, worse, I would think of stabbing myself with the still-wet bread knife sticking out of the dish rack.
She's watching TV in the living room, alone. Dad is upstairs in his study. I can hear the sounds of recorded laughs and a man's voice saying: "But, Margaret, you didn't!" "But of course I did, Henry." "You mean you didn't tell me it was all a misunderstanding?" More recorded laughs. My hands are pink under the hot water. Mom thinks I'm still washing dishes. I have unzipped my fly to allow my half-erect penis to stick out of my jeans. I can smell the musk of my own sex. Only with a superhuman effort can I refrain from taking the still-wet bread knife sticking out the dish rack and stabbing myself over and over, over and over. Ha! Ha! More recorded laughs.
When I heard what my son had done, I nearly had a heart attack. I mean: how can anyone, no matter how deranged, do that to himself?! It's unheard of. It was my wife, Trish, who had answered the phone. She walked into my study, pale as a radish, with her e yes shut tight.
"What happened, Trish?"
"Oh God, oh my God, oh God, oh my God..." She was shaking her head from side to side, her mouth wide open, her eyes shut tight.
"Oh God, oh my God, oh God, oh my God..."
"Oh God, oh my God, oh God, oh my God..."
It was sickening... Trish flew to Philadelphia right away to see Val but I stayed behind. I went to work the next day as if nothing had happened. I didn't know how to broach the subject to anyone. I couldn't say, for example: "Val had gotten into an accident, and Trish had flown to Philadelphia to see him."
But I should have gone with her, I should have. Maybe I was too afraid to see him, to look him in the eyes, knowing what I knew.
Are Trish and I responsible? What did we do to cause this disaster?
In elementary school, a few kids did call him Valerie. Maybe I shouldn't have named him Valentino.
It was a seven-hour plane ride and I was crying the whole time. The stewardess said: "Are you OK, Ma'am?" I bit my lips and nodded. I couldn't even speak. The elderly gentleman next to me was trying hard to ignore my distress.
And all this time, my husband and I had thought Val was finally getting his act together. He was going out with a girl. Patty, her name was, Patricia Potemkin. What did she do to him?
It was not a good sign that Patty was eight years older than my son. But considering the fact that Val never dated in high school, never even went to a dance, we were glad he had found somebody. We wanted to raise an upright gentleman, yes, not a homosexual.
But I never did like the way she looked. In the one photograph Val sent us, she was wearing shades, a black leather vest over white T-shirt, black leather pants and black boots. A girl who is that self-conscious about her appearance has got to be bad news, I remembered thinking. Also: she had almost no lips and her teeth were extremely large.
"You think they're sexually active?" I had asked my husband.
"How would I know?"
"But what do you think?"
"If you're so curious, why don't you ask him?"
"I can't ask him, I'm his mother, you ask him."
"They're probably doing it right now, Trish, as we're talking! He's 24, for God's sake!"
We had a sun deck at the back of our house. It was about twelve feet off the ground. It overhung, on two sides, a cement-paved patio, and on one side, a flowerbed: gloxinia, morning glories and black-eyed susans mom had planted.
One of my earliest memories was of me and dad standing on the sun deck pissing on the flowerbed.
When I was 13, straight strands of hair jutted out from the hypogastric region above my uncircumcised penis. I took out a scissors and cut them off. They reappeared. This time, I not only cut them off with a scissors but shaved my entire pubic region. Aga in, they reappeared.
But then I thought, hmmmmmm, maybe these strands will grow so thick they'll hide my penis! I waited a month for this to happened.
A big letdown: the hair grew but were so sparse they hid nothing.
But then I had a brilliant idea.
I had had in my possession a Thomas Eakins black and white photograph of a female nude in which the crotch area was shadowy, almost black. Whenever I looked at this fudgy, smudgy area of the photograph I would get an erection. On the other hand, more explicit photographs, those in colors and featuring exposed genitals, had always repulsed me.
I stood naked ten feet away from a full length mirror. The curtains were drawn and the lights had been turned off. I had rubbed black shoe polish on my penis and testicles and all around my pubic area. In the mirror, there was nothing but shadow between my legs.
But then something unexpected happened. My rising black erection rose above this shadow area.
You may not believe this, but I NEVER masturbated as a teenager. I did not know what masturbation was. I did not know that you're supposed to stroke up and down.
Game #1: Retract both arms from arm holes of T-shirt. Keep elbows close to sides. Place fists in front of chest. Voila! now you have a beautiful pair of breasts.
Game #2: Imagine that many people are watching you as you are peeling T-shirt over head, and that, voila! you have a beautiful pair of breasts.
Final Scores of Doubleheader
Pull underwear down. Place hands on buttocks. Voila! now you have a beautiful pair of breasts.
I was recovering from a bad break-up when the letters arrived. (My live-in boyfriend of two years had suddenly decided, after coming back from a five-day-vacation in London, which he took by himself, that he must move to England. "I can't take this Fascist country anymore," he declared, and left.)
The letters were pathetic and earnest. I had no idea who was sending them. I was amused, disgusted, and flattered. They were sent to the Roxy movie theater where I was working as a ticket girl. The first one:
To love is to forgive each other. Shouldn't we forgive each other?
The smallest defect is what endears beloved to lover. I've seen your ring finger. It saddens, yet haunts me.
To be the most articulate stutterer in the world is my salutary aim. Eloquence, that transvestite, cannot be compared to the wobbliness I'm after, the wobbliness of a heart disembodied--propelled by lust and checked by reason. I have a convoluted mind; I have a saturated mind. I have a mind that turns back on itself and eats itself, like a twelve-headed snake alternately kissing and swallowing, only to have to defecate itself onto the table everyday while everyone is watching. Shouldn't one be allowed an occasional stump after decades of hemorrhaging wildly at the drop of a bucket?
I apologize for the strangeness, even the offensiveness, of my last letter. I am approaching you this way only because of shyness. We are connected, I know. Will you join me in the house of light? Alone in my apartment, I can occasionally hear your thoughts. You love me. Last night you had a nightmare involving a car accident. Is that true?
I did lose two joints of my right ring finger in a minor car accident when I was 11. Then:
I will come to the 8 o'clock showing of Sense and Sensibilities on Friday. You will recognize me immediately. But if, for whatever reason, reasonable or not, you choose to not acknowledge my presence, I will resign myself to that fact, and stop bothering you.
He gave me his name, in large block letters traced over several times:
MY NAME IS VALENTINO
There was also a pencil drawing enclosed: "Nude and Skyhook" was scrawled in an ornate, tilted script across the bottom. Tucked into the top right corner was a spiderweb-like basketball net, its rim pointed downward. Running from bottom right corner to top left corner was a long drainpipe arm holding a marble-size basketball between its middle finger and thumb. The basketball had hair, eye lashes, growing on its circumference. The rest of the page was covered with a swirly pattern. There was no nude.
Because people tend to go to the movies in pairs, there are no more than ten loners at each showing. I assumed I was looking out for a single man, between 20 and 40. To make light of a bizarre situation, I kept saying, over and over, bulletproof glass, bulletproof glass.
It was a Friday and I had a date with a girl I had just met. Her name was Patricia Potemkin. We were supposed to go the movies at 8 o'clock. But I was sick that day and threw up several times during the afternoon. At 5 o'clock I took a nap and never woke up.
The Federal Water Conservation Act of 1978 mandated that newly installed toilets release no more than one and a half gallon per flush, 40% less than before. Many consumers complained that this only necessitated an additional flush.
Trish, however, applauded this new law. Why waste water? She was also keen on conserving electricity.
In 1979, a three-year-old Val ran into to a darkened bathroom to pee, and saw, lying at the bottom of the toilet, a one-inch-long gold specimen, half broken up, diffused. "It's a ring," he thought. "What are you doing?" his mother said, startling him from behind. She was standing in the shower. Behind the translucent plastic curtain, she looked like a pink octopus.
Trish was also keen on conserving gas. That's why the house was always 10 degrees too cold and meals were routinely under-cooked. Chewy spaghetti, bleeding chicken, and rice that tasted like pebbles. Once, after Trish had placed a plate of warm baked beans with cold hot dogs in front of a by-now five-year-old Valentino, he said: "This tastes like shit, Mom."
"Just eat it."
"I can't, Mom."
"Just eat it!"
All through puberty I was afraid I would eat shit. Any day now, I thought, I would bend down over the toilet, pick some shit up, and eat it. What would I be if I eat shit? I would be less than the lowest animal, you might as well shoot me. My two fears growing up were 1) I was going to stab myself with the bread knife while washing dishes, and 2) I was going to eat shit.
There is a word for this: coprophagous, meaning feeding on dung (dung beetle, etc.), from the Greek kopros (dung), derived from the Sanskrit sakrt (dung). Kopros in Greek means dung, as in acropolis: house of dung.
The only thing clean about a human being is his skin. Inside, he's filth. No, no, let's start all over: the only thing clean about a human being is his clothing. No! No! No! No! No! No! No! Because his pants and shirt are not clean. The only thing clean about a human being is his hat. And that, only on the outside. Everyone walks around with a load of shit.
I dribble between my legs, behind my back, do a spin move, take off with da rock in one hand, pump twice in mid air, and jam it down Michael Jordan's throat. "Fuck you, Mike! Fuck you!" His tongue is hanging out.
Four single men came to the 8 o'clock showing of Sense and Sensibilities that Friday:
-A short, red-haired man, in his mid 40's, with an unkempt moustache, tobacco-stained teeth, wearing a jean jacket.
"Just one, please."
-A very large, at least 230 pounds, black man, in his late 20's, wearing a Temple sweat shirt and a Phillies cap.
"One ticket, please."
-A man in his 60's, in an old suit. Wisps of hair were sticking out of his ears.
-A dread-locked, nose-ringed white man, in his early 20's, obviously drunk.
"One for Sense and Sensibilities."
"Sense! Incense! Sissibilities!"
What I said about the movie date was a lie. I did not know this girl. I had seen her just three times. She was a ticket girl at the Roxy movie theater on Sansom Street. I had written her a series of letters. I was in love. On that Friday I was supposed to show up to introduce myself.
The first time I saw her I noticed, as she gave me my ticket, that the ring finger on her right hand was missing two joints! Blood rushed to my face. It's providence, I thought.
This fatal encounter triggered major chemical mayhem in me. I couldn't concentrate throughout the movie. All I could think of was this forlorn, brazen stump between her middle finger and her pinkie.
At home I would replay this scene over and over and imagine that my hand had actually brushed against her little stump. My life mission, from that point on, I knew, was to possess that stump.
A week later I went back to the Roxy. Although it was not very cold I wore a ski mask. I saw her stump--again it made me shudder--and her name tag: Patricia Potemkin.
The third time I saw her I was about to introduce myself, but I could not, I could not do it. I was too frightened to be confronted with destiny.
That's when I decided the best way to ingratiate myself into Patricia's life is through a clean medium. Through letters: words without breath, clean, dry, firm, minus the intangibles of a live body, with its corporeal garbage of seduction and repulsion.
But why was I so afraid of Patricia Potemkin?
Faced with an inevitable choice, a command dictated by fate, a man reserves the right to waver, to reject, even, what could be his ultimate happiness. Choice is dearer to him than bliss.
You will concur with me that primitive people, people with low self-esteem, South Philly girls, for example, are the ones who pay the most attention to their hair. They like to braid, curl, conk, tease, weave and dye their hair a hundred different colors. Those with a spiritual life, on the other hand, do not need to do this. They either pay no attention to their hair or go without hair altogether.
Starting from puberty, I had always been clean shaven: face, chest, armpits, crotch, everything. I even plucked my eyebrows and eyelashes. I would squat over a mirror and cut the hair sticking out of my ass.
It came as a complete surprise to me, then, that, during the weeks after my failure to appear at the Roxy for my so-called date, I had an irresistible urge to grow a beard.
A man wearing a ski mask approached the ticket window of the Roxy movie theater on Sansom Street.
"Yes, can I help you?"
It took me forever to corner Val into bed. No hints were too obvious. I'd lean over to pick up something in front of him wearing a loose-fitting blouse with no bra underneath. I'd say, as we were sitting on his couch: "It's a little bit late, Val, I think I've missed my last train." Once I even gave him a tab of acid, his very first, but all he did was curled up in the fetal position in the bathtub and sobbed for three hours.
We did kiss, but his kisses were frantic, angry. He would pull my hair while he kissed me.
Finally, I said: "Listen, Val, I'm not going home tonight. I'm not going home tonight."
We slept together for a week, he fully clothed and I naked. But he would not look at my body in the morning. Then one night, before bed, I got him to agree to strip to his underwear. I mounted him that night. "It's OK, it's OK," I hissed as I rode him up and down as he murmured. From this point on, I thought, we will behave like a man and a woman.
But why was I being so persistent?
It wasn't because I loved this man. I simply wanted to solve him. I wanted to give our relationship a definite shape before I walked away.
But still he was useless. You see, he couldn't maintain an erection inside my vagina. He could stay stiff for a long time as long as he didn't have to enter me.
And as long as he wasn't fellating my stump. Before, when we were just kissing, I noticed he had a habit of clutching my maimed hand, really squeezing it, and I had caught him staring at it few times, but now, now that he had lost his inhibition, it was all he wanted to do: give my stump a blow job. And after a couple minutes of that, nibble, nibble, nibble, he would pop and lose his erection.
I had had lovers who would make a point of acknowledging my stump during sex to show that they were not freaked out by it--true, some did seem to like it a little bit too much--but I had never met one who was this fascinated by it.
I realized the rest of me didn't exist as far as Val was concerned when I'd wake up, night after night, to find him felating my stump.
Like I said, maybe I shouldn't have named my son Valentino. But doesn't Valentino come from the Latin valentia? Meaning strength and valor? Valentino = Valor = Valiant = Voluptuous = Vatic = Vast = Varied. It's strange how one word can determine the course of an entire life.
But it would be disingenuous of me if I don't tell you about my index finger. It may have some relevance. I'm no shrink, of course, I'll just give you the facts:
I had joined the National Guard in 1966. In 1968, I was called up to go to Vietnam. Now, the reason you joined the National Guard was to avoid going to Vietnam--so what's this bullshit? I was 23, in love, and about to take over the family's business--Busk in Hardware in Walla Walla--why would I want to go to Vietnam?
But don't get the wrong impression. I'm no leftish tree-hugging faggot. If the Vietcong were to attack Portland tomorrow, I'd be the first to drive my Chevy down Route 12. But why would I go 10,000 miles to fight them in Saigon? For whom? For what?
In short, I was in a major crisis. What in hell am I going to do? I couldn't say anything to my own family. My father and two of his brothers were World War II vets. One came back with a plastic bladder. The only person who knew about my anxiety was Trish.
Each life is determined by two or three crucial moments. One night, after drinking a fifth of Jack, I went into the back of the store and flipped on the band saw. Its loud hum unnerved me for a moment, although it's a sound I've heard all my life. You can go for years on cruise control but then, all of a sudden, you have to make a decision. And if you cannot do what is in your best interest, then you are a coward. No, worse, you are a pervert. Only a pervert shrinks from what is in his best interest. With my left hand I guided my right hand, its index finger sticking out, towards the blade. Fluffffff! That was it.
I felt no pain, only exhilaration. I was bleeding like hell, sure, but I was ecstatic. For the first time in my life, I had made a decision that could not be reversed. I had taken charge of my destiny. I was a man.
You know how they always say, "It takes balls to do that!" It was literally true in this case: the second before my index finger hit the bandsaw, I felt a pinch in my testicles. They were blinking, so to speak. Gritting their teeth before their moment of truth.
But there was a logistical problem: I had made no provision for what to do after my amputation. With my bleeding stump pressed against the front of my flannel shirt, I walked back into the store and found a piece of cheese cloth, which I wrapped around my entire right hand. There was blood all over the floor and I thought, great, now I'll have to clean all of that shit up. But the pain was starting to kick in, throbbing, increasing by the second and making me dizzy, and the cheese cloth had turned completely red. For a moment I thought I was going to bleed to death and die, right here, in Walla Walla.
Confronted with a novel crisis, the mind comes up with a novel solution. It was snowing outside. I went out, made sure I was not seen, knelt down on the ground, unwrapped my improvised bandage, and thrust my right hand into a mound of fresh snow. My blood coagulated.
My father never forgave me. He went to his grave thinking I had humiliated him.
I've never talked to Val about my index finger and he has never asked me about it. I do not know if Trish ever said anything. Considering what he has done to his own body, it would not be appropriate to bring it up now.
Now that you've heard my little confession, tell me: what is the connection between a man cutting his trigger finger off because he did not want to get his balls blown off in a war he did not care about and a man hacking his penis off for no apparent reason during peacetime?
I saw Patricia last month while waiting for the train in Trenton. It has been three years since we were lovers, two since my self-surgery.
I saw her out of the corner of my eye. She was leaning against a wall, standing about five feet away from me. Of course it was Patricia: still in her shades, black leather vest over white T-shirt, black leather pants and black boots. I know this woman, I know her breasts and her vagina. I know her stump. Of course it was Patricia, with those thin lips. But I made no move to acknowledge her. I was in disguise. I was wearing a wig and a dress.
I stood still, looking up the track, while seeing Patricia out of the corner of my eye.
But I was not acting naturally. I neither turned my head left or right, nor shifted my weight from one foot to another. Nor blinked. Nor breathed. I stood perfectly still, like a classical statue, like the Venus the Milo, hoping that she would move, so I could move. But neither one of us moved. This went on for about two minutes. I knew then that she had recognized me. As the train came up the track, Patricia finally moved from her position and walked slowly but deliberately back into the station.
As I saw her from behind gliding up the escalator, I thought, I know that woman, I know her vagina and her breasts.
It was very unfortunate that Patricia saw me in my disguise. She had known me as a man, as her lover. There was no need for her to be devastated by my transformation.
More importantly, she was my archivist. She had known me during my happiest, most successful moments. If my life could be distilled to what was stored in her memories, then it would be considered a happy life.
It was a happy life, that is, until this episode in Trenton, this codicil, fucked it up. She had known me as a man with a beard, as her lover, as someone who gave her orgasms, not as clean-shaven, dress-wearing faggot.
But if Patricia thinks I'm a faggot, then she's mistaken. I'm not a faggot. I'm not even a cross-dresser. It was a brief, misguided experiment. I wore dresses only for a few days.
What Patricia saw in Trenton was an hallucination, my hallucination. It was theater, a clumsy skit performed among friends, an amateur production, and not emblematic of anything. If you could walk into my job right now, you'd see a rather generic, tall, well-built, bearded gentleman, in a conservative tie and a suit, sitting at his cubicle.
Aside from inspiring me to grow a beard, Patricia also inspired me to drink. It took the edge off our time together. It was also, as it is for everybody else, an aphrodisiac. It made me an enthusiastic lover. As a matter of fact, I don't think I ever penetrated her sober. Like the saying goes, a man without alcohol is like a flag without wind.
Unfortunately, my drinking habit did not go away after Patricia and I split up. I drank and drank and drank and drank and drank. I drank and masturbated to revive our best moments together. The habit of shaving my entire body also came back. I shaved my face and my chest and my inguinal region. I plucked out my eyelashes and my eyebrows.
But I no longer had a spiritual foundation for these private rituals. I was a drunk who was compulsively detricholating himself.
One night, as I was squatting over a small mirror to prune the hair from my ass, it happened.
© crossconnect 1995-2000
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania's kelly writers house |