“Nothing better than breakfast for lunch,” I said, reveling in my state of caffeine and carb satiation. I was sitting with the Dark See in a window booth at Slickity Jim’s Chat ‘N’ Chew. Every seat in the diner was packed with patrons who shared my views on the desirability of bacon, eggs, and toast at any time of day.
“All meals should be breakfast,” the Dark See proclaimed, squirting an avalanche of ketchup across her Devil With a Blue Dress omelette. She cut a violent swath through her meal. Chewing, the Dark See pointed out the window with her fork. “You see that guy across the street?” she said through a mouthful of egg, “The one dressed like a rockabilly Roy Orbison? He used to be a trick.”
I looked up from my Breakfast of Broken Dreams in the direction of her stabbing utensil. Main Street was busy, the sidewalks packed with people out enjoying the warm Vancouver spring. Venturing into the world with the Dark See was like being on a street safari of johns. Ever the consummate guide, she narrated the tour, recounting anatomical details and behavioral oddities committed to memory.
I turned to get a better look at today’s sighting. My bare thighs peeled off the vinyl seat with a wet smack. I narrowly avoided dislodging a framed picture of Merle Haggard with my elbow as I craned my body in the direction of the escaping specimen.
It was clear whom she was talking about.
A long-legged figure lurched awkwardly around groups of coffee sippers and cigarette smokers.
He was sheathed head to toe in a black suit and crisp white shirt, completely unsuited to the weather. His hair was teased pompadour-style and his eyes were shielded by a pair of blacked-out Ray Bans. His gait reminded me of a heron, long spindly legs maladapted to terrestrial life. I half expected him to unfurl a vast expanse of wings and flap off into the sky, graceful at last.
As he rounded the corner, a noise in the street caught his attention and he turned to face the Chat ‘N’ Chew’s bay windows. My pulse quickened, the smallest rev of my internal engine, as recognition set in.
“Get out. I totally know him,” I exclaimed. The Dark See glanced at me in bemusement. “Well, not know him, know him. But I’ve seen him around.”
This was the first of the Dark See’s clients I had ever recognized. My initial shock quickly morphed into morbid fascination. It’s one thing to overhear the secrets of strangers but another entirely to catch an illicit glimpse into the private life of someone you know, even the most casual of acquaintances. I was especially curious because of where I recognized him from.
We both belonged to a secret fraternity: the place ex-drinkers go to patch together or reinvent their lives, as the case may be. I’d seen thousands of faces in the rooms, most of them swirling past like stir sticks on a sea of bad coffee. But he was different.
The meeting was called Happy Hour. Wearing a black trench, he stood apart from the crowd of spit-polished Yaletown ex-drunks gathered for their version of the hallowed hour of conviviality.
As I sat listening to the same old testimonies, I stared. He wasn’t conventionally attractive; there was something strange about the way he looked, as if parts of his face were slightly off kilter. Yet he struck me hard.
And so it began then, in my usual way: a violent first impression lodged in my memory, like stepping on a tack buried deep in the shag.
The Dark See’s voyeuristic revelation drew the dormant memory to the surface of my consciousness. I leaned towards her, fiddling with the remnants of my Broken Dreams, waiting to hear more.
“Ten years ago or so, when I first moved to Vancouver, I used to see him with my friend—it was her he was really into.” She took a sip of her seventh coffee refill and continued, “This was when I was still training, you see, so I was to be seen and not heard. Extra eyes, added humiliation, that sort of thing. He probably wouldn’t even remember me. But her? He was obsessed. Paid her and paid her and paid her.”
He turned the corner, and the Dark See and I moved on to other subjects.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
August melted into September in a steady stream of beach days and warm nights. The last place I wanted to be was in a church basement.
I pulled into the parking lot, empty save for a handful of cars. Peeling my dress away from the patch of condensed sweat at the small of my back, I got out of my car and headed inside.
I was an hour early. September was my month on setup; the duty a moral hedge against years of generally sociopathic behavior. Redemption via coffee creamer and folding chairs. There was no sign of my setup partner. I got to work throwing out rows of chairs and cursing unreliable alcoholics.
As I was laying out the Costco cookies and napkins, I heard someone coming through the doors. Nice of her to arrive just as I’m finished, I thought. Perfect timing as always. I looked up, ready to throw my wayward partner a snide comment.
It was him.
My stomach did a flip—small, but noticeable.
Alone in a church basement, social protocol suggested a greeting, yet neither of us said a word. The industrial coffee maker gurgled.
He took a seat in the front row. Silence. He fiddled with his phone. Opportunistic text messaging to avoid a socially awkward situation? That’s what I would have done in his place.
In solidarity, I lurked in the kitchen, redoing tasks that were long since finished. I had a good view of him from the pass through. He was more handsome than I remembered. The facial misalignments were still there, but they now seemed to work as a whole.
I started to feel annoyed with myself for hiding. There was no reason to be shy—after all, this was my home group. And who was he anyways? Treat him like any old person in off the street. I left the safety of the kitchen and grabbed two paper cups from the stack next to the percolator.
“Coffee’s ready. You want some?” I spoke loudly, not wanting to have to repeat myself. My voice sounded strange ringing across the empty space.
He looked up from his phone. “Sure,” he said and headed my way.
We introduced ourselves and concentrated on caffeine preparations. Cream, sugar, and stir. I noticed that he reached for the Splenda. To head off an awkward silence, I grabbed the dessert tray and shoved it towards him.
“Would you like a cookie?” I asked, “I bought them myself,” I waved a rock hard oatmeal circle in the air.
His voice was different than I thought it would be. He had the reedy, hoarse resonance characteristic of heavy smokers and lounge singers. I wondered which one of them he was. Maybe both.
I wanted to hear more of that voice. I drew him into conversation, sticking to safe topics such as work. Here, as it turned out, we had common ground. I talked about my job as a clothing buyer. He was also in retail, the owner of a vintage store. As our conversation began to flow more smoothly, we discovered a mutual fascination with Nancy Grace, CNN, and Obama for President. It was an exciting time to be a cable news addict, even one living north of the 49th parallel.
I could hear people trickling in around us as the meeting got ready to start.
“Well,” I said reluctantly, “I’m going to head to my seat.”
I turned to leave, but he stopped me with an invitation. “I’m having a party at my place for election night. You should stop by.”
I didn’t hear a single word that was said for the next hour. The hook was set, whether I liked it or not. Thoughts of him started to colonize my mental territory, expanding like the British Empire.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
By the time I arrived at his house on election night, the party was well under way. The air was charged with the spirit of hope and the smell of spanakopita burning in the oven. On the television, John King was charting election results by state with the help of his Magic Wall. I said hello to a few familiar faces and wandered in search of the evening’s host.
I found him pouring drinks from behind a quilted leather bar.
“Hi,” he said smiling, “Glad you could make it. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Do you have any Pellegrino?”
“Absolutely. Double or single?”
“I’ll take a triple. On the rocks, with a twist of lime.”
He handed me my drink with a little bow. “Go take a look around. I’m going to finish pouring for the heathens and then I’ll come find you.”
Outside his house wasn’t much to look at, but the interior was eye-shatteringly bold. Blood red carpets, white walls, and floor to ceiling black velvet curtains formed the backdrop for a dazzling assortment of objects.
I wandered through the house, taking it all in. A golden bust of Mao sat atop a scratched baby grand piano. I walked over tiger skin rugs and stared at a series of weathered black and white photographs. The women in the pictures lounged in vintage brassieres, smoking from long cigarette holders and drinking wine. In the last shot they were running naked down a hallway, laughing and chasing one another. Ted Kennedy, staring out from an Andy Warhol print, seemed amused at their antics.
Roaming about a person’s home is like catching a quick glimpse inside their mind. Not quite full access behind the Wizard’s curtain, but close. My host was undoubtedly a lover of oddities, a salvager of precious things old and discarded.
I made my way back towards the kitchen and the hors d’oeuvres assortment. Alongside the charred spanakopita I found some more edible offerings. I grabbed a plate from a stack of mismatched china emblazoned with various members of the Royal family and loaded up.
As I ate, I realized I had made a new friend. At my feet sat a rheumy-eyed black beagle. He stared up at me with a look designed to break hearts and wrest food from the hands of humans.
“I see you’ve met The Fiend,” he said, coming up alongside me. “I’m not taking responsibility for his food addiction though. I adopted him from the SPCA last year and he was hitting it pretty hard even back then.” The beagle looked morose at this character assassination.
“I love your house,” I said, discretely shifting the focus away from The Fiend’s personal struggles.
“Really?” he looked around appraisingly, “You don’t think it looks like an idiot lives here, do you?”
A cheer went up behind us. According to the Magic Wall and Wolf Blitzer, Barack Obama was the 44th President of the United States.
Coverage continued and he drifted away. I settled in to wait for the victory speech to commence.
As I searched for an empty patch of wall to lean against, a glass case caught my attention. I moved closer. As I realized what was inside the case, the hairs on my arm stood up as if they too were trying to get a better look. I stood, staring.
“Do you like that?” he asked, reappearing beside me.
“It’s different,” I said cautiously, “Where is it from?”
“I made it myself.”
Silence fell between us.
I didn’t know what to say. Luckily, I was saved from the necessity of a reply by the President-Elect’s appearance on stage.
We turned to the television, simultaneously sucked in by the tide of history. As Obama’s voice rang out across the crisp Chicago night, I could feel the stare of masked eyes penetrating through my back and lodging deep between my ribs.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“So…the mask on your wall.” Pause. “Are you into that sort of thing?” I strained to keep my voice level, unwilling to betray emotion of any sort. The din of the restaurant, loud a moment ago, had become suddenly quiet. Crowd noise has an uncanny ability to die off the instant a sensitive subject is brought up in its midst. Sonic telepathy.
“What kind of thing?” He pushed the food around on his plate like a small child pretending to eat.
“Don’t you like the food?” I asked, changing the subject. I prayed for a return to the previous decibel level. Ever since I laid eyes on the Mask, I had obsessed over its possible meanings. Was he still in the fetish scene, and if so, was that the reason our relationship had stalled? Or was it just another objet d’art, strategically placed to trumpet his non-conformity?
Over the past months, we had moved through a series of dates and late night phone calls to arrive at nothing. He was attracted to me, and yet there was something missing, some mysterious element whose absence rendered the potion inert.
Curiosity was killing me, yet at the same time I didn’t want to know. The subject left me with the same feeling I got when I thought about blood vessels. I stared at his left carotid artery, throbbing beneath his jaw, and felt the familiar mix of fascination, revulsion, intrigue and apprehension wash over me.
“The food? Ah ya…the food’s great.”
“Are you going to have dessert?” I countered.
He snorted and shook his head. But I already knew the answer to that question. That very night he had asked me if he looked fat. He was preoccupied with his weight, constantly shifting from one irritating diet to another.
“You could always try exercise,” I suggested, anything but helpful. “Or bulimia if you’re feeling lazy.” His weirdness about weight didn’t end with food. Despite standing six feet, he wore lifts in his shoes to give the illusion of an even taller, thinner silhouette. I had a suspicion that’s what the black suits were all about.
The subject of food stressed him out. His fingers started bouncing off the edge of the table. Tap tap tap, tap tap tap, three times with each digit from the thumb down to the pinky, one finger at a time. Repeat three times on each hand. I usually ignored his tapping routine. Tonight, though, it annoyed me. I was on edge. I was almost certain I was about to identify the block in our relationship. I used that irritation to sharpen my nerve, grinding and scraping until I felt emboldened enough to press on.
“S&M. Bondage. Leather. Humiliation.”
He stopped tapping and looked at me.
“That kind of thing,” I continued, “Are you into that?”
Again, the chatter around us seemed to fade off into silence.
“What would make you think that?” he asked.
I laughed, incredulous. “Oh my god, I don’t know,” I said, “Maybe the custom fetish mask hanging in the middle of your living room? Hand-stitched by you. Lovingly made from pieces of old Louis Vuitton bags and displayed like Napolean’s death mask. Are you fucking serious?”
He appeared startled, then a look of terror passed over his features. “Oh shit. No! No, I’m not into that at all,” He leaned towards me, his elbows resting on the edge of the table. “Do you think my mother thinks that too?”
“Um ya,” I said, “I think your mother thinks that too.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The Dark See’s number flashed on my call display. “Are you busy tonight love? I need some pretty bodies. Compensation is offered.”
I arrived at her door later that evening compliant with the Ready-For-Action dress code: painted-on fuchsia dress, five inch patent leather heels so shiny I could fix my lipstick in the reflection, and a floor-length black overcoat.
The Dark See opened the door and gave me a squeeze. “You look great honey, come on in and I’ll get you something to drink.”
In the kitchen she poured out a tall Pellegrino, iced up with a twist of lime, and handed it to me.
“How’s life?” she asked, “Any men?”
“It’s still him,” I replied, sighing into my cup. “I can’t get him out of my system. He’s like a bad case of malaria. Every time I think he’s gone for good, we talk or see each other, and then I’m right back in it. Fever, delirium, the works.” I took a sip and felt the carbonation fizzle down my throat. “But something is messed up. We can never move past a certain point. There’s an invisible wall.”
“He’s too weird for words. But I know you like that kind of thing. Anyways, come on in, our guest of honor is here.”
We moved into the next room where four of our girlfriends were playing a party game.
The object of the game was next to the fireplace. The man stood erect, hands tied behind his back, naked save for the mask covering his eyes. One by one each woman brushed against his body. To win, you had to give him a hard-on the fastest. The sole rule was that his genitals were off limits.
Music blared, skin prickled. The room smelled of perfumes mingling with male sweat.
I crossed the room and slid into line behind Sarah. I wrapped my arms around her waist and bit her earlobe in one quick motion.
“Hi,” she squealed, trying to escape my teeth. She twisted around to face me. “I’m glad you’re here. I’ve been meaning to call you.”
“What’s up?” I brushed an errant strand of hair away from her face.
“You know that guy you’re into? The one with the store?” Her eyes blazed with excitement. Gossip was Sarah’s ultimate turn on.
“What about him?” I asked cautiously.
Time slowed – I knew what was coming.
“He’s been emailing me. I was going to jack him, but then I recognized the name.”
“Get out. Wait a minute,” I said, quickly realizing the possible implications of her information. “What kind of ad was he replying to?” Ahead of me, I could hear the sightless man groaning with pleasure as he writhed his body towards the unseen female.
Sarah looked like she was going to pee herself. She licked her lips and answered.
“I fucking knew it.” I said and threw back a mouthful of sparkling water.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The drive to his house sped by. As the blocks whirred past I listened to music full-blast, firing myself up for the task ahead. I replayed our conversation over again in my head.
“Wake up,” There was no question in my voice, only command.
“What’s going on?” His voice was groggy and he sounded confused. My call had jarred him awake from a Robax-induced slumber.
“I’m coming over.”
“You’re a big boy,” Long pause. “Figure it out,” and I hung up without another word.
His house looked like a crypt. All of the windows were dark as I made my way up the front steps and rang the bell.
He opened the door. His hair was disheveled and his dress shirt was askew, the buttons hastily mismatched. I took a deep breath and pounced. I reached forward and grabbed hold of his shirt collar with my right hand. Stepping forward into the hallway I pushed his body back into the wall. I drew myself close to him; I could feel his breath on my face. Our eyes locked.
With no trace of hesitation in my voice I plunged ahead. “You and I are done fucking around. I know what you like, and it’s okay.”
His expression was unreadable. It looked as if he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. His body wriggled in my grasp like a fish flopping on the end of a hook. Down the hallway, The Fiend stared at our awkward tableau, doggy mouth hung open in amazement.
In an instant, I knew that something had gone horribly, irrevocably wrong.
“What the hell are you doing?” he finally managed to sputter, “Let me go!”
We stood in the hallway facing one another, both of us desperate to escape.
Drowned in mortification, the truth of the moment floated upwards like a water-logged corpse unwillingly drawn to the surface by the gases of decomposition: the magic spell cast by our own private obsessions, unless shared willingly, shatters under the gaze of another.
I turned and ran back into the night.