One Door Closes
by Charlie Anders
I kept looking up from the piece of paper in my hand that read, “Dear Mason,” to the screaming advert in block capitals above the seats opposite mine on the subway.
After a while the two blended into a single message to me. “Dear Mason, ARE YOU SEXUALLY COMPULSIVE? I don’t think we can see each other any MAKE $500! more. Lately, I don’t feel like you DO YOU THINK ABOUT SEX are really committed to this ALL THE TIME? relationship. DO YOU HAVE DIFFICULTY You’re a really special FORMING CLOSE TIES WITH OTHER guy and I really hope for good PEOPLE? DO YOU MASTURBATE things for you. But I don’t see MORE THAN HOURLY? how we can grow together WE WANT YOU! after everything that’s happened. MASS GENERAL IS STUDYING SEXUAL This isn’t just about you and Laura ATTRACTION AND ORIENTATION. although I admit I have a hard WE WILL PAY FOR PARTICIPATION time trusting you now. Please don’t try to IN OUR SEXUALITY STUDY. CALL TODAY! contact me. Love, Judy.”
The most meaningful relationship of my life had just gone Spong!, and all I could think about was the idea that someone would pay me $500 to look at porn. Obviously this was a sign. What some people, like my now-ex girlfriend, might view as a weakness, no less an institution than Mass General saw as a valuable trait.
I scribbled the contact number for the study on the back of Judy’s kiss-off letter, and called it the following morning. A few days later, I sat opposite a curvy brunette in a lab coat, who was explaining something to me about androgen exposure in the womb. I could already tell I was in the right place: she had this sparkle in her green eyes that I never got tired of staring at.
I stopped fantasizing about peeling off that lab coat and tuned in to her spiel. “...and we suspect that the same fetal androgen levels that cause a high sex drive in males also correlate to homosexuality,” she was saying.
“Wait a sec. I’m not gay, you know?” I almost added I’d be happy to prove it.
She said that was OK, they needed red-blooded heteros like myself to balance out all the mauve-blooded queers in their study. Cheryl, the lab coat hottie, asked me a bunch of questions about my sexual history, and for once I didn’t have to lie to a chick. It was great. I could tell she was impressed, especially when I told her about that time I banged three chicks at the anti-war protest. It was like, meet ‘em, profess thirst for peace, lure them away from the protest to my pad for a bathroom break, bang ‘em, then back to the protest for the next hoochie of conscience.
“I need to have sex at least three times a day, or I get headaches,” I said.
So I was a perfect subject, Cheryl said, and she gave me consent forms to sign, which I did. She said something about an experimental procedure. I always did like experimenting, especially with a hot lab partner.
She asked me to come back in a few days, so I went off to my job at the Conservation Trust. I spent forty to sixty hours a week studying soil erosion and coastline changes, trying to come up with more and more evidence of changes in the environment. Our goal was to present irrefutable science to policymakers. Luckily there were no chicks I’d want to mack at work, so I was able to concentrate on my statistics all the time. Crunching numbers is my second best talent.
OK, so I do care about baby seals and trees and crap. I could be using my talents to work for oil companies, and I’d probably get laid just as often. Money is probably a better aphrodisiac than altruism, but it has the added advantage of helping you pay for stuff. As it is, I could afford a tiny studio in the old Combat Zone and one vacation a year.
My main coworkers were Don and Jessie. Don was a homo, but at least he didn't groom obsessively like the fags on TV — he was likelier than me to wear grungy jeans, and no products touched his hair save Prell. Somebody had told Don that queers had a duty to critique mainstream culture and the sap had believed it, leading to endless attempts at bon mots. (He had the “mots” part down pat, but the “bon” part usually eluded him.)
Jessie was like my little sister. On her most glamorous day, she might have been mousy, but most of the time she was more like weevilly. Normally Jessie jumps out of her chair and does this cute welcome-back dance whenever I get to work, and sometimes she’ll thrust something sugary from her oven into my face. Today, though, Jessie slumped in her chair and groaned a “Hi.” Don barely looked up.
I wondered if I’d done something to annoy Don and Jessie, or if Don had been spreading tales about the time I brought a chick to the office to screw her on top of our map of wetlands and habitats. But then then Jessie handed me a memo instead of the usual cupcake. I saw the word “funding,” and the word “eliminated,” and all of a sudden I realized I might have to watch a whole lot of porn to pay off the rent on that studio. There might not be enough porn in the world for me to watch and pay my rent.
“Oh fuck,” I said. “I thought we were privately funded.”
“Our biggest sugar daddy dropped dead on the golf course,” Don moaned. “And now our federal funding is going down the tubes.”
We ended up leaving work early to go get drunk at the Oyster House near the office. Actually, Jessie and Don got drunk, and I sipped tonic water. I don’t drink or do drugs, which is one of the things that misleads people into thinking me steady and mature. It’s actually because I’m in a constant state of erotic poise, and I don’t want any substances to slow me down. It sucks, because I end up spending a lot of time in bars looking for cute women who are still sober enough to fuck. This was a particularly bad time to be sober, because I had to jump off the misery-bonding train once Don and Jessie reached the weepy, restating-the-obvious phase. Don had a paranoid headtrip borrowed from Gyn/Ecology, and Jessie demonstrated the way she hyperventilated in job interviews. I felt their pain, in fact it was my pain too, but I’ve never really believed in licking wounds when there are other things to lick, and once I made eye-contact with a businesswoman-type just fresh from her work, it was pretty clear to me what kind of bonding I’d prefer to engage in just then.
A few days later, Cheryl at Mass General wanted to know all about my childhood. My parents divorced when I was five, and my dad had custody during the school year because my mom was an overworked teacher. So I had nine months of Presbyterian conformity with my plumber dad, and then three months of bohemian hippiedom with my mom. My mom spent her summers on the road in a big van, visiting caves and festivals and communes. I wore the same poncho for weeks at a time without washing it, and everybody thought I was adorable. It always took me a week or so to adjust from Mom’s world to Dad’s or vice versa.
She asked a whole bunch of other questions, too, and I was happy to share. And then she introduced me to Dr. Arno, who would be doing some tests and stuff. I had to sign another huge stack of consent forms, basically absolving the hospital for everything that had ever happened or might happen. Dr. Arno looked like every dentist I’d ever had: hairy arms, hairy chest under his blue smock, mostly bald but with thick dark hair on his crown. Probably needed to shave every hour to look even half-shaved. There was a lot of handshaking and talk of sports that meant nothing to me, and then Dr. Arno said something about mildly invasive procedures that I shouldn’t worry about.
“Invasive,” I said. “Doesn’t that mean —”
“It’ll take no time, and you won’t even have a scar, champ,” Dr. Arno said. “No biggie.”
And then they had me lay down on a big table, with a ton of machines all looming over me like alien abductors, and a bright light in my face. Cheryl started prepping some local anesthetic, which worried me a bit, but I figured it was something where they wanted to be able to examine my vitals while I watched porn. I wondered where the porn was going to come from — maybe that bright light would project it directly onto my retina, which sounded sort of fun. And then the top of my head, where your skull gapes when you’re a baby, felt all numb. Faintly, I felt a prodding.
“When do I get to look at porn?” I asked.
“After.” Cheryl laughed. It sounded a little spooky.
They were injecting something into my scalp. Why were they doing that? They were working at the wrong end. I wriggled my hips a little to remind them what part of me they were meant to be studying, but instead they started poking at my head with some kind of tiny needle.
“We’re looking for the androgen receptors in your brain,” Cheryl said.
Even with anesthetic, the needle felt like it was pressing against something I was going to need later. “Uh, hey, watch the spongy stuff,” I tried to say, but it didn’t quite come out as I’d hoped. Then I saw a flash and then every beach movie I’d ever seen flashed before my eyes, even the ones with Annette Funicello that I’d turned off once I’d realized they had no topless scenes. It was like a wet dream, only endless and sandy. I floated away from the movie-medley beach into a sticky sea, only to slam head first into a giant corrugated tin reef.
I opened my eyes and Cheryl handed me a lollipop. “You’ve been good.”
“Reef,” I said. “Not roof. Weird.”
They told me to come a week later, and there would be porn. They promised.
I’m not one of those people who fetishize their own brains. I mean, I like my brain, it’s good for what it’s good for, and it would suck if I had to work with my hands. I have very smooth, supple, gentle hands. Anyway, I don’t sit around thinking about my brain, or comparing my brain to other brains or anything, and yet the thought of someone dissecting my brain while I was still using it left me kind of unsettled.
But I didn’t really have time to dwell on that issue, not when we were fighting for our lives at the Conservation Trust. Part of our problem was our development person had left a year or so earlier, and we hadn’t replaced her. (She’d been a real hottie.) We’d had a long-term federal grant, and then Dez Almond had donated a couple hundred thou a year to us as a tax write-off. Who could have predicted Dez would stiff us in his will? So now we were all working the phones, calling everybody who’d ever praised wetlands and seemed like they had stacks of cash burning their pants up. There must be some heiress I could instill with a crazy-thirsty passion for biodiversity. Anyway, I didn’t mind cold-calling, and Don held his own, but it killed Jessie, who’s deadly shy even with people she knows. The week moved really slowly, hours and grinding hours of smooth-talking near-strangers, and the whole process was so draining that I only managed to get laid twice some days. Demoralizing, to say the least. I was startled when Cheryl called to remind me it was time to come in for my followup visit.
“What the hell does that thing do?”
I looked at the garage door opener in Cheryl’s hand. Dr. Arno stood by and watched with some smugness, I noticed. I was feeling overdue for the porn portion of the research.
“What does it look like? It opens most kinds of garage doors.” Cheryl laughed. “Only we’ve added an extra feature. Our theory is that sexual preference is triggered by receptors in the brain, so that when we do this —” She clicked the button on the opener. I lost my bearings for a moment, everything went fuzzy, and I saw sparks like when Murphy my boyhood cat put his tail in the toaster.
Then everything cleared. “Whoah. That was... Wow. What the fuck just happened?”
“That’s what we’re hoping to discover. Maybe nothing,” Dr. Arno said.
“Everything sort of exploded for a moment. So do I get paid to look at porn now?”
“Sure.” Cheryl dug in a filing cabinet marked “primary sources” and tossed me a copy of Hustler. I flipped through it looking for the good part, the one image that would jumpstart my sex drive. Nothing. I kept flipping. All the pictures seemed boring this month, for some reason. I might as well have been looking at grout. “Huh,” I said. “This one sucks. Do you have another?” But the copy of World-Encompassing Super Breasts didn’t do anything for me either. In fact, the entire canon of Western girly mags left me none the hornier.
“That’s something new,” I said.
“They’re not turning you on?” Cheryl asked, scribbling on a notepad. She perched on the side of her desk and glanced at me in between squiggles. “How about your level of sexual desire? I mean, are you feeling horny?”
I rummaged mentally in my scrotum, and yes, indeed, there was the same old purr of readiness, ready to throttle up to maximum power at a moment’s notice. I said as much, and offered to prove it to Cheryl if she wanted to do some one-on-one research with me.
“But those magazines failed to arouse you,” Dr. Arno said from his stool in the corner. “How about this one?” He handed me another slick magazine. It had a name like Raunchy Inches of Man Meat, and it was full of pictures of young guys touching each other.
Now until that moment I had felt about homosexuality the same way I had about eggplant. I had no problem with other people eating the stuff grilled, baked or curried. But put some in front of me and I’m liable to choke on stomach acid.
So it freaked me out when they shoved this gay porn mag in front of me and suddenly it looked pretty cool. “Whoah,” I said again. “This is weird.” The device they had me hooked up to was making all kinds of noises that I guessed were translating my body’s responses into “hubba hubba.”
I put the magazine down and closed my eyes tight. I clenched my fists and curled my toes. “This is not happening,” I muttered. “I did not just find another man’s naked eggplant attractive.” I tried to fill my mind’s eye with images of naked women spreading their legs and touching themselves, but the images seemed lifeless. It was like the time I swallowed half a bottle of Nyquil and then tried to have a threesome with two busty Tae Bo instructors.
“Please open your eyes, Mason.” It was Cheryl. Oh Cheryl, so recently the object of my untamed ardor and now as interesting to me as a bread sandwich! “Come on, Mason. You can’t keep your eyes closed forever. Don’t worry, this is only temporary. The sooner you cooperate the sooner this’ll be over.”
So I tried to look at all the slippery man-bodies as if the whole thing was a furniture catalog, except that something weird happened to the downstairs crew. I stared at this one picture of a sweaty bundle of muscles clutching himself, and I wanted to put my hands where his hands were. It was as crazy as anything I’d ever felt for a woman, it came out of nowhere but it kicked my ass. I could practically taste that guy’s mouth.
“Does that arouse you?” Cheryl asked. She was smiling again, and I didn’t find it sexy at all. It was just sort of creepy.
“What the fuck did you do to me?”
“It works,” Arno said. “Suffering Simon LaVey, it works. All of our suppositions are totally verified. The mechanism is remarkably similar to the non-human test subjects, except filtered through cognition.”
“Listen.” I raised my hands, which had become fists without my noticing. “I don’t know a lot about ethics, and experimental subjects research, and consent and stuff, but I have a feeling it’s pretty fucking unethical to TURN PEOPLE GAY WITHOUT THEIR PERMISSION and you’d better just fucking turn me back right now before I gay-bash both of you with my suddenly gay fists.” I didn’t think a jury on the planet would blame me for going ballistic on them, it was pretty much the classic gay panic scenario, except that the gayness I was panicking at was my own.
“Okay, okay,” Cheryl said. “Sorry, it’s purely temporary. Here —” She raised the garage door opener and pressed the big button. Another crash of sparks in my head, and a wave of vertigo that nearly made me hurl. The haze cleared and I slowly straightened up from the standing fetal position I’d gotten into. “There. You’re straight again.” By way of illustration, she handed me the Hustler again and it was awesome, all those breasts and legs and openings singing my name like a breakfast cereal commercial recorded only for me. I was back at my post, ready to give my all and bring my “A” game, standing on the walls of the fort surveying the enemy catapults. “Oh, thank God. I’m back.”
“It’s not as if you went anywhere,” Cheryl said. She handed me a check for $500. “Let us know if you have any after-effects. You shouldn’t. It should just heal up naturally.” I was so psyched to be straight again, I didn’t even worry too much about what they had done to my brain.
Except that, on my way out of the lab, I snagged the garage-door opener and dropped it into my jacket pocket. They tried to argue with me that this was highly specialized equipment that had cost them a lot of money to develop, but I wasn’t having any of it. They were lucky if I didn’t sue them for unethical brain-thumping.
At this point, I just wanted to go out to the airport bar to try and pick up flight attendants. But I had to go to some kind of reception at the Boston Museum of Art, in the hopes that some donor types would be swanning around. I didn’t even have time to go home and change, so I had to hope my frayed corduroy jacket and paisley tie would seem like evidence of our organization’s financial need. Most of the friends of the museum types were well-meaning NPR types who could afford to shop at Whole Paycheck, but didn’t have a small fortune laying around. I made myself look for anyone, male or female, who looked especially well-heeled, for nearly an hour. Then I gave up and zeroed in on this one red-haired chick in a low-cut lacey top. Sondra was an art historian specializing in Egyptian funerary relics, and I wanted to feel inside her ceremonial urn. She told me all about her thesis, and I practiced active listening, which is like the magic shortcut to active fucking.
Sondra had only had a couple glasses of the cheap museum wine before I lured her back to the warmth of my cozy apartment with promises of gingerbread, and soon enough I was kissing her neck and breasts, and — oh yeah! — the master commander touched down with his lunar lander, and planted the flag in the moon’s surface in the name of red-blooded heterosexual exploration. Oh yeah.
I didn’t notice the garage-door opener was missing until the next day. I woke up next to Sondra, luxuriating in her curvy everythingness, and I nibbled and nuzzled at her in the hopes that she might be up for a morning quickie. She purred, and we were moving into launch position, and then — Zork! — another one of those weird flashes and my head going dark except for jets of flame. And then Sondra’s skin, her scent, suddenly left me cold. First I couldn’t see anything, and then I might as well have been making out with a lawn caddy. I yelped and fell out of bed.
My first thought was that I must have stepped on the garage-door opener by mistake. I’d actually repressed what had happened the day before at MGH. I’d almost convinced myself it wasn’t real. Now I was fumbling everywhere for that gadget, searching all of yesterday’s pockets. Nothing. “Oh shit! Where is it?” Sondra asked what I was looking for and I said nothing, but I babbled so weirdly that she bailed on me. I barely said good bye to her. After an hour of turning my apartment upside down, I gave up. Then I realized I was late for work. How could I go outside like this? I couldn’t face the world as a gay man. I would die instantly. Blame my coworker Don, who had spent years explaining to me how oppressed he was for his gaiety, to the point where I now believed that if I set one gay foot outside my door, someone would shoot a rocket-launcher at me. I tried to call in sick, but Jessie thought I was just having an extended nooner, and we were close to crunch time.
I ran to work, avoiding eye contact with anyone. I spent the rest of the day working the phones like a crazy person and trying not to think about what could have happened to that opener. Luckily, I still wasn’t attracted to Don.
I did manage, at lunch time, to call MGH and talk to Cheryl. I told her what had happened. “Oh shit. That’s valuable equipment, with a lot of proprietary tech in it, and we really shouldn’t have let it out of the building. If Arno hears about this. Fuck. Can you come by here this afternoon? I’m here until five.” I tried to get away from work in the afternoon, but Jessie guilted me. So instead I told Cheryl I’d stop by first thing the next morning.
By the end of the work day, I’d calmed down a little bit. It wasn’t like I had a rainbow flag glued to my forehead or anything. Sure, I kept having weird thoughts about guy-skin, but nobody could tell. I would just be another closeted gay guy until we got this sorted out. I certainly wasn’t going to act on my weird desires.
That left me with another problem, though: what do you do in the evening if you’re not getting laid? What do sexless losers do to pass the time anyway? I didn’t even own a television set. I needed to distract myself. I asked Jessie what she usually did with her evenings, and somehow this turned into the two of us going to dinner and a movie together. We went to a big seafood place in Chinatown, not far from the multiplex. I tried to avoid looking at anyone male, as if I’d contracted sudden man-blindness.
“What’s going on, Mason? You’re acting really weird allofa sudden,” Jessie said. I said it was nothing, and tried to focus more on my dinner companion. I’d never realized how adorable Jessie’s little round face was, and it turned out she’d majored in Wife of Bath Studies and knew all about freaky-ass medieval women. She was like the ideal fag-hag for my hopefully temporary gayness. I mostly just listened to her talking about her childhood in a mannequin museum, and soon it was time for the movie. It was weird, even though there’d been zero sexual tension between Jessie and me before, I found I could relate to her more now that it wasn’t even a question.
Then there was another head-splitting flash during the trailer for that new movie about the guy who marries his lawnmower. And boom, I was straight again. Jessie was kind of halfway over our shared armrest, and I could feel her warmth, and she whispered something that included a plosive sound so her tongue showed itself for just a second, and then my tongue was on hers and I touched her face with both hands. She pushed me back to my side of the armrest. “Mason, what are you doing?”
“I’m sorry, you just looked so... I’m sorry. It was a mistake.” I almost got up and left, but that would have felt way too dramatic. So instead we sat through a whole movie next to each other, and didn’t talk at all about what had happened.
“Look, just shut up about your proprietary crap,” I said to Cheryl the next morning. “Yesterday I changed my sexual orientation twice! And now I’m gay again!” There had been another flash this morning, as I brushed my teeth. “I’m totally going to blow the whistle on you guys!”
“Well, you can’t really blame us. I mean you insisted on taking it with you, and then you were careless with it. And you did sign a huge stack of release forms agreeing to let us do whatever we wanted. So really there’s only one person who’s at fault here.”
“Did you just get another signal?”
“No, I’m just incredibly pissed off!”
It was obvious to me what was going on here. Somebody had it in for me, and he or she was using this experiment to get at me. Either someone had expected me to sign up, or had found out that I was among the participants and taken advantage of the fact. And then stolen the remote control. My first suspect was my ex Judy, of course, but there could be others. Someone in the chemical plant industry who resented my work for the environment? Maybe I had offended Cheryl and she had launched a vendetta?
“Listen, Mason,” Cheryl said. “I don’t think anybody’s doing this on purpose. How often are you feeling the pulses?”
“So far, twice a day like clockwork.”
“In the morning and then in the evening?”
“Yes... Oh. Someone’s using it as a garage door opener.”
“Well, it does open garage doors.”
“But why don’t I feel two pulses at a time, when they open and then close the door?”
“If the pulses are too close together, the device doesn’t register a second pulse, for safety reasons.”
“Can’t you just remove the trigger from my brain?”
“I would want to wait at least a month or two before attempting another operation on your head, just to ensure that the trauma from the original operation heals properly.”
“Shit!” I also suggested building another remote control so I could just cancel out the pulses. But apparently they’d locked the remote and the implant on a random frequency to prevent tampering. Cheryl’s only practical suggestion was rigging up some kind of helmet I could wear to shield my head from the remote, probably made of tin foil. I said no thanks, partly because it would look idiotic, but mostly because I’d already tried the tin-foil thing that morning.
“Don’t worry, Mason. We’re working really hard to track down whoever took the door opener and get it back. We’re going to post signs all over the place. I’m sure we’ll get it back or figure out a way to deactivate it soon.”
The next few days were the same as the first: a gay-making pulse in the morning and a straight-making pulse in the evening. But then on the fourth or fifth day, there was no morning pulse. Maybe whoever it was opened their garage door by hand for once, or maybe I was shielded for some reason. The evening pulse came as usual, only it turned me gay instead of straight. And then a couple days later, there was only a morning pulse and no evening pulse.
The randomness made it worse. If I could have known for sure that every morning I would turn gay and then every evening I’d revert to straight, it would have been manageable. I think a lot of people go a little hinky right before lunch and straighten out in the late afternoon.
But imagine making plans for the evening, not knowing in advance which way you’d swing. It drove me nuts.
Jessie and I never talked about our movie-theater kiss. She knew I was a sex fiend, so she probably just assumed my hormones got the better of me. Just to make sure she wasn’t mad, I took her out for another dinner and didn’t put any moves on her this time. She kept smiling at me sidelong, same as she always had, so I figured we were good. The more time I spent as a fag, the closer Jessie and I got.
So here’s me on the phone with Rachel the sexy theatre geek: “Uh, hey. I’m not sure about tonight. Yeah, I’m feeling a little... um, under the weather. Not sure. I might be feeling better by tonight. Or I might not. No, it’s nothing like that. No, you’re not my ‘back-up plan.’ Don’t be silly. No. No listen. OK, fine. Maybe we should postpone. Yeah.”
And here’s me on the couch with Jennifer the foot model. She was giving me an impromptu lesson in vogueing using only her feet, and I was biting my tongue to keep from glancing at my watch. Jennifer is a goddess from head to toe, but her feet are works of art. She was doing imitations of Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks using her feet as Naomi and Tyra, and I was cracking up, but it wasn’t perking me the way it normally would.
“Oh no, you did not just criticize my hairstyle bitch!” Jennifer threw her voice so it looked like her wiggly left foot was yelling at her right foot. Her feet got into a catfight. It was hilarious. I wished I was watching John Cusack pick his nose instead. This was wrong — I should not be fantasizing about John Cusack’s nose when Jennifer’s feet were in front of me and her left foot had just done things Daniel Day Lewis could only dream of.
I’ve been noticing something about you,” Jeremy said a litle later at the same party. He was one of those suave manicured guys who usually annoyed me, but he was having the opposite effect at the moment. He could tell, too. “I don’t think you’re quite the man you’ve represented yourself as.” He put one hand lightly on my knee.
“I’m not myself right now,” I choked.
“Then who are you?” he smiled and beckoned me into the bathroom.
I’ve never said no to my body. I don’t believe in it. If I have a life philosophy apart from all that save-the-environment crap, it’s all about listening to my body. Sleep when you’re tired, eat when you’re hungry, fuck when you’re horny. So I had to battle every one of my natural tendencies, even if those tendencies had been warped in a foreign direction.
So yes. When Jeremy planted one on me, it took root. He kissed, I kissed back. I tickled his ear. His ear had hair behind it and I didn’t care, it turned me on. I felt his muscles against mine — who knew he had muscles? — and his body responded the way mine would to a hot girl. I started tugging at his shirt, as if I could pull it off him without breaking our kiss.
He detached himself long enough to pull his shirt off, and then he reached for mine. And a million volts surged behind my eyes. I almost blacked out for a moment. Then I looked around and blinked. What was I doing with a half-naked man in the bathroom? More importantly, what was he doing with me?
“Um... Oh shit. Sorry. I gotta go.”
He didn’t throw a fit or try to change my mind. He smiled sadly. “I understand. Plausible deniability can become an addiction.” Whatever that meant. I got the hell out of there.
I needed to find a woman. Any woman.
The third bar I went to, I saw Gail sipping a Cosmopolitan. I thought of Helen Gurley Brown and put on my best boy-toy face. Gail was at least ten years older than me, but her smile lines and a few gray hairs were the only evidence. She gave off the vibe of someone whose bullshit detector has become more reliable than touch or smell, thanks to decades’ acquaintance with disappointment. And yet, smile lines.
Women like Gail used to intimidate the stud right out of me, but I’ve learned to appreciate more than fear them. As long as you’re totally honest — without over-sharing — you need not fear the BS detector. And
older wiseass chicks make terrific lovers.
So I told Gail about my recent breakup and the frantic work to try and reverse our funding cut or find new funding. I dropped in enough info to let her guess I was a playa. I didn’t mention anything about MGH or garage door openers. Gail told about her divorce and corporate VP job.
She and I sized each other up for a while. I tried not to stare at the hint of cleavage in Gail’s power blouse or the nylon-covered knee inches from my hand. I let Gail set the pace, but even so it was almost a disappointment when she invited me back to her apartment, meaning the talking and flirting were about to give way to action.
In the taxi going back to her place, I had a moment’s panic that the owner of that garage door might decide to run out for groceries just when I was touching those knees. I swallowed and steeled myself. So far, the mystery door-opener seemed a homebody who didn’t go anywhere after nine. I only hope he remained true to form.
“Is everything okay?” Gail asked. I nodded and smiled, put all my warmth into it. It seemed to reassure her.
But when we got to her place, she shook her head. “Sorry. I just got a weird intuition. I’ve been with gay guys who were trying to convince themselves they weren’t really gay before, and I can sense it. It’s that ambivalence. For a moment just now, you weren’t sure you wanted this.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I protested. “I can prove I’m not gay if you just —”
“See, there it is. ‘You can prove.’ Sorry.” She gave me enough money to cover the cabfare thus far, plus tip. Then she disappeared.
It was enough to mess with my head. What if I really was gay, and this experiment had just brought it out?
No. No fucken way. I had too many hetero memories, plus the way I felt right now.
The next morning I stormed over to MGH. I didn’t even blink when I turned gay heading into the subway, I was so pissed. It had been two weeks since they’d turned my sexuality into a dip switch, and it was way past time for me to get some answers. I ignored the front-desk people shouting at me, and pushed through both doors to the research area. I stalked down the hallway to the little corner office where Cheryl and Dr. Arno did their work, and tore open the door. Inside, there was a pile of defunct computers, a mop and bucket on wheels, and a bunch of cardboard boxes of latex gloves. The front desk person who’d chased after me told me to stay out of the supply closet. After a moment, she did admit that there had been some researchers using that space a while back, but they’d moved on. Nobody knew how to get in touch with them.
I was totally screwed. I should have seen some sign of their shaky ethics. It was like that study I’d read about where the researchers had forced volunteers to electrocute a chimpanzee whenever it cuddled with a bathmat instead of eating from a milk bottle attached to a TV set. Except this was my life.
I couldn’t afford therapy, with my job going away soon, but I had to talk to someone. There was pretty much only one person I could tell.
I took Jessie to lunch at a Pho place near the office. I had to explain the whole thing twice before she got it. “So which are you now?” she asked, and I told her gay. She was excited by the implications, about the biological roots of sexual orientation, and I had to drag her back to my problem.
Jessie and I became inseparable after that. Not just because she knew what was going on with me, but also because it felt reassuring to have her around. She got so she could tell when I was having one of my brain-surges, and she’d put her hand on my shoulder until I recovered. I could tell her everything, and it was the one thing that kept me from going bonkers.
A week or so after I told her the whole story, she and I were cuddling on her couch, watching some musical about sailors. I was having a gay day, and Jessie apparently thought I should appreciate musicals. Some of the sailors were weirdly adorable. I hadn’t tried making any gay moves since that business with Jeremy at that party, but I still had thoughts. I mean, gay guys are supposedly the best at no-strings sex, right? But if it got around I was sleeping with men, I’d have a harder time picking up women. Anyway, we were cuddled up on the couch watching the dancing sailors, and then I felt the familiar jolt in my head. And all of a sudden Jessie was the hottest sex goddess in the universe, and the sailors were just asexual white blobs. This time when I kissed Jessie, she didn’t push me away. She kissed me back, and we groped each other and pushed our bodies together and I reached under her shirt. Then she squirmed a little.
“Mason, stop, what are you doing?”
“You’re beautiful. I want you so bad. And just think. We could, ummm, sleep together, and you wouldn’t freak if I suddenly went gay on you. It would be perfect.” I had to admit this thought had been occurring to me lately.
“You just want to use me. I’m in love with you, and you just want to use me!”
“I don’t just want to... you’re what?”
“Nothing. Forget I said anything.” Jessie pulled the blanket off me and wrapped it around herself twice, then piled several cushions on top to strengthen her fortifications. I was talking to a tower of upholstery.
“No, what did you mean? You’re in love? For how long now?”
“It’s nothing, I’m just stupid. You should go.” She wouldn’t look at me, or talk to me at all, so I had to bail.
I felt like the world’s biggest asshole. How had I not realized how she felt about me? I had always known she was attracted to me, because hello, she was a straight female. But I felt like a lout. I kept seeing Jessie’s eyes gleaming with tears, and then the cushions cutting her off from me, and my heart weighed tons. I had been feeling so close to her, and seeing her in a whole new light, and now it was all ruined. Normally, when I feel guilt or depression, the cure is to go find a hot physical therapist and, well, have physical therapy. But somehow getting laid didn’t seem like the cure for guilt over being an evil sex fiend. I wandered through the urine-smelling streets, cursing myself under the tallowy street lights.
And then I was walking by a bar full of men, with a rainbow flag hanging out front, and I noticed this one guy staring at me. Not that it mattered, because I was straight probably for the rest of the day. But I noticed things: Rolex watch, Armani suit, Cole shoes. He wasn’t one of those scruffy social-critique fags like Don, he was a Donald Trump fag. And then it hit me: how I could redeem myself with Jessie and save my job.
I didn’t give myself any time to worry about whether I could fake being gay. It wasn’t like I hadn’t experienced it, and also supposedly homos really dig straight guys. So I met the guy’s gaze and hung back. I didn’t want him to think I was too easy. This was nuts, I was acting like the prey instead of the hunter for the first time in my life. But I sensed he’d like that, and I was right. I made him come to me, and then kept him guessing. Eye contact and smiles, but noncommittal body language. Just pretend you’re a self-absorbed straight guy, I told myself. Soon Gerard was throwing myself out there to impress me, and when I talked, he hung on every word.
We talked for a few hours, and I let him kiss me, but that was it. I gave him my cell phone number and said he could call any time before ten at night.
Gerard and I hung out a few more times after that, and there was heavy petting. I was getting more used to the idea that if it felt good I should go ahead and do it. The fact that I blew hot and cold, depending on where the toggle in my head pointed, seemed to make me endlessly fascinating. I only dropped hints here and there about the Trust’s financial problems at first.
We went out to dinner at a nice restaurant and Gerard got us a fancy bottle of wine. We were probably one date away from him buying me a belt or shoes, and two dates away from put-up-or-shut-up on my part. I could read him so well, it was like I was inside his head. I let him get a little bit further after the fancy wine, even though I had gone straight halfway through dinner.
The next date after the fancy dinner, Gerard and I went to some big drag queen concert where guys twice my size wore massive acrylic wigs that had probably come from a factory that caused cancer in every child for ten miles around. While we were all still milling around and jumping for the bartender’s attention, Gerard and I frotted a little in the crowd and I kissed his neck. (I was gay, for probably the rest of the night, which made things a lot easier.) Then he asked me why I always seemed so preoccupied, and I beckoned him into the single-stall men’s room, the only quiet place in the whole club. I noticed Jeremy watching me going into the bathroom with Gerard, and I gave him a wink. Then, in the bathroom, we cuddled against the hot-air dryer and I told Gerard the whole story, from our main backer collapsing on the golf course to the federal funding running out. “Oh, is that all?” Gerard said. “Leave it to me.” He paraded me around the club, introducing me to the club owner, and the lead singer of the Bad Mushrooms, and Sven, the hottest club promoter in town, and DJ Quikmix. Within half an hour, we were all set to host a fundraiser that would probably bring in enough money to keep our doors open for a while. Then he and I went back into the bathroom, and this time I didn’t even hesitate. I listened to my body, my feelings, and my brain and they all said to go for it. And use a condom.
Monday, I went back to the office for the first time in a few days. Don perched on the fax machine, wearing his usual torn dungarees and YELLING ANGRY QUEER RIOT shirt, and he barely looked up when I came in. “We’ve got a week to get our shit out of this office,” he said.
“Hey Don, shut up and listen. We’re saved! It’s all going to be okay.” I told him the whole story. He didn’t understand how I had met Gerard and all those other guys, when Don had been a mainstay of the gay community for ten years and they’d never even said huh to him. I said it was my heterosexual privilege. Anyway, I told Don to start contacting every activisty type he knew to spread the word about our fundraiser. Then it finally occurred to me to wonder where Jessie was.
“Oh, she left. She’s flying home to her parents in Seattle, for good. She figured our jobs were done for, so she might as well blow town. She left you a note.” I found the note on my desk, and skimmed it. It was remarkably similar to the note my ex-girlfriend Judy had left me, except for a few details.
“When did she leave?”
“I just put her in a cab half an hour ago, with all her bags.”
I started to run out the door, hoping I could catch her before she went through security. And then I realized: She took a cab. To the airport. In Boston. I could leave any time in the next hour and still get to the airport before her, if I took the subway. So I got a bagel and some coffee, then read the Phoenix cover to cover, before jumping on the T to Wonderland. I had to wait a few minutes for the shuttle bus to the airport from the T stop, but then I still had to hang around the terminal for half an hour before Jessie clambered out of her cab and wheeled in her bags.
“What are you doing here?”
“Just listen to me, Jessie. I’m really sorry I hurt you. But you don’t have to go, I’ve fixed it so our jobs are probably saved. And I don’t want you to go. I care about you a lot. You’re my best friend, and I want you in my life.”
Her eyes got shiny and her wheelie-bag handle fell from her grip. She rushed forward and hugged me. “But I ruined everything... you don’t love me, and I shouldn’t have said anything. And now it’s too late.”
“Jessie, it’s okay. I love you too. I never realized until recently how much you mean to me. But I’m like a sex addict. I don’t know if I’m capable of having a commited relationship.”
“Maybe we should just try being friends for now, then.”
We held each other tight, as the airport bustle swarmed around us. I helped Jessie to get her stuff into the shuttle bus that led back to the T. “So, I was thinking,” she said. “What’s the furthest from your house you’ve ever felt the garage-door opener?”
“I dunno, maybe half a mile. No, a quarter mile.”
“So chances are whoever has been using it lives somewhere on your block.”
“So I could go out early and try to catch him or her using it! That’s brilliant!”
“Or you could just move.”
Duh. Why didn’t I think of that sooner?
So I moved in with Jessie. It’s nice to have someone to hang out with, during the intervals between my early-evening and late-night booty calls. We did a pretty good job of sound-proofing my bedroom, using wall-hangings, extra foam insulation and bubble wrap. I still get together with Gerard once a week or so. On days when I have a date with Gerard, I make sure to wander my old neighborhood first thing in the morning, just so I’ll be in the right frame of mind. It’s not a bad thing to broaden your horizons every now and then.
About the Author
Charlie Anders is the author of Choir Boy (Soft Skull Press 2005) and the co-editor, with Annalee Newitz, of the forthcoming She's Such A Geek (Seal Press 2006).
She's the publisher of other, the magazine of pop culture and politics for the new outcasts. Her writing has appeared in ZYZZVYA, Salon.com, the Wall Street Journal, Publisher's Weekly, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the New York Press, Tikkun, Punk Planet, Genre, Watchword, Instant City and other publications. She's appeared in two dozen anthologies, including Pills Chills Thrills & Heartache, It's All Good! and Paraspheres: New Wave Fabulist Fiction.
She organizes the long-running series Writers With Drinks, which won "Best Literary Night" the last two years in a row in the Bay Guardian's readers' poll.
Her satirical web site www.godhatesfigs.com was the London Sunday Times' site of the week, and a Yahoo.com cool site. She is the author of The Lazy Crossdresser (Greenery Press, 2002).
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