Fiction: Tim Florence
The fast isn’t working. But then again, I had doubts about it from the beginning. I don’t generally buy into anything that smacks of New Ageism. That’s one thing that tends to set me apart from other people in Los Angeles. Whenever someone starts talking to me about rebirthing or meditation or astrology, I feel this childish urge to giggle, and I have to stare at the floor in order to fight it back.
Fasting, at least, seems to have some basis in science. I heard enthusiastic reports about this particular plan’s cleansing effects from several acquaintances, all of whom offered detailed descriptions of the dramatic shits it produced. Long sausages of tarry slag. Thick gushings of sick-colored stew. The detritus of the colon at last set free. One girl I know even claimed she excreted a black, writhing, wormlike creature. “It’s true, Nick,” she said with pride. “I had no idea there was something so disgusting living inside me.” That’s what really got me. I admit it. I find the prospect of such a satisfying shit captivating.
It’s day nine, though, and the catharsis still hasn’t arrived. Since the second day, I’ve seen nothing. Not even a few pebbles. I know there’s still time. But I’m tired of drinking the prescribed mixture of juices, I think I’m losing muscle mass, and I feel lightheaded from lack of food.
My roommate Frankie’s the one who first told me about the fast. She and I share a two-bedroom dump in Los Feliz and are both trying to make it in show business, she as a singer-songwriter, I as a model-actor. I like Frankie. She’s a vegan and an essential oil enthusiast and an acid trip diarist, but at least around her I feel comfortable being up front about my contempt for all things alternative. She seems to find it a charming idiosyncrasy.
Frankie’s also the one who persuaded me to take Harris Love’s class. I already take yoga classes at my gym. I find the stretching helps me with my weight lifting. I’m good at it, too: eight years of childhood gymnastics have left me flexible. Colleen, the instructor, wears a microphone and a sporty ponytail and has never once mentioned chakras.
But that’s gym yoga. Now Frankie wants me to try the real thing.
Harris Love was once an actor of little talent and devastating good looks named Harris Prescott. I remember seeing him in movies fifteen years ago, when I was a boy in Wisconsin and he was at his peak. One scene in particular still sticks in my mind. In A Cowboy’s Heart, Harris played a gunslinger searching for his kidnapped, mortally ill lover. The woman’s husband, a nefarious bandit, had found out about their affair and hidden her away. The cowboy knew she would die soon; he wanted to reach her in time to say good-bye. At last, he burst into the room where her husband—now dead and defeated—had sequestered her. His black mane was tangled, his skin was scratched and dirty from his battles, a revolver glinted in each hand. He saw her lying on the bed. And then something shifted. Harris Prescott’s eyes, the blue, cold, empty eyes of a beautiful and barely competent film star, focused, animated, ignited with emotion. A single breath passed through his mouth, a thick breath of real despair. He was too late. She was already dead. He holstered his revolvers and contemplated her body, dainty and limp and angelic in a white shift. “Juanita,” he whispered. Dusty sunlight filtered into the room through shuttered windows, falling across the two of them in horizontal bars. In the background, a Spanish guitar played a sad love song. He unbuttoned his ragged shirt and revealed a torso voluptuous with muscle. With a tenderness you wouldn’t expect in someone so large, he wrapped the shirt around her bare shoulders, gathered her up, and carried her off. The movie closed with a shot of him, still shirtless, riding his horse across the desert, Juanita’s body clutched to his heart, her white dress flapping in the wind.
I was eleven when A Cowboy’s Heart came out. That scene became one of my first bedtime jerk-off fantasies. Eyes clenched, amateur fingers working, I played that moment of revelation when Harris took off his shirt over and over in my head. The sudden nakedness of his chest, the sudden heat of his icy eyes, thrilled me again and again. I didn’t really understand what I was doing or feeling. Admiration and desire mingled and got confused. I wanted to become Harris, massive and heroic. But I also wanted to become the lucky, dead heroine, to be folded in his robust arms. I wanted to feel Harris’s body, both from within and from without.
I suspect the same few seconds of film were being screened in the nocturnal imaginations of straight girls and incipient queer boys across America. The four or five movies Harris made in the late eighties, all of them essentially filmed romance novels, tended to inspire a kind of clawing adolescent adoration, even in adults. It had to do with his body, of course. But I think it had even more to do with those eyes, usually so distant and disconnected, but capable, in brief flashes, of knee-softening intensity.
After his moment passed, I didn’t hear much about him for almost a decade. A while after I graduated from college and moved to Los Angeles, I met a guy at a party who claimed Harris had picked him up and fucked him in the back of a town car years earlier. But you hear a lot of things in Hollywood. Then I read an article in a magazine about his conversion to yogism—apparently, he had been among the first wave of Hollywood celebrities to get into it. He had even spent a year in India studying with some renowned guru. Now he was back in California, the article said, with a new name and a yoga studio of his own opening in Silver Lake. After that, I heard his name mentioned regularly. His classes grew more and more popular. He came out with a line of yoga videos. He put together an illustrated coffee table book about yoga and spirituality. He started his own foundation, which apparently does a great deal to promote world peace, human rights, and his book and videos.
Now, as Frankie and I head toward Silver Lake in her dented Hyundai, I’m starting to think this may not be the best day to try Harris’s class for the first time. I’m not worried about my stamina. Nine days into the fast, I still haven’t had to interrupt my lifting routine. But this evening my empty stomach is making me feel particularly cranky and intolerant.
“No, this is the perfect time,” Frankie says. “The yoga will help you work the toxins out of your system.” She looks over at me slouching in the passenger seat. “I’m so proud of you, Nick,” she says. She thinks she’s converting me. I roll my eyes, hamming up my resistance.
We pull up to the studio, a secluded, free-standing, modern structure of redwood and glass. The waning sunlight yellows the sky and bronzes the windows. Trees engulf the building: Silver Lake is one of the few places in Los Angeles where nature has managed to retain a foothold.
Inside, people pack the lobby, which is cramped and awkward, engineered for chaos. Before the long line of students waiting to check in, a white girl with dreadlocks behind the front desk maintains a demeanor of showy calm. I notice quaint handwritten signs on the walls carrying messages like: “Be present! Please avoid using your mobile phone in the studio. Blessings!”
Frankie pays for my class and takes me into the yoga room. I step through the curtain, and warm air swallows me. The room has the sultry, incense-laden climate of a harem. In the dim light, I make out the impressive proportions of the place. Substantial columns stretch up to a lofty, pitched ceiling. Windows high on the walls afford glimpses of tree and sky and nothing else. A platform covered with candles and small icons occupies the far end of the room, and a mural depicting some kind of warrior-god with an elephant’s head presides over the wall above it. The deity sits cross-legged, with one of his four hands holding an axe above his head and another, oblivious, making a gesture of peace in front of his chest. His head is in profile, and he appears to fix his animal stare on a fire alarm farther along the wall.
Dozens of yoga mats tile the hardwood floor. More than sixty students must already fill the space, most of them young, attractive industry types. Some work the room as if it’s a cocktail party. Others stretch. Many sit with upturned palms and closed eyes, meditating. Looking at these last, I remember how I used to feel as a boy in church, the birthplace, I suppose, of my cynicism. My mother, barely a Christian herself, would occasionally make short-lived resolutions to instill some religion in me. It didn’t work. Nonbelief came instinctively for me. I would sit there on the hard pew and study the other worshipers, their folded hands, their moving lips, their earnest, wrinkled foreheads. I always assumed they were faking it. I thought that was what faith was: a performance.
“Over here,” Frankie says. She’s already put down her mat. I unroll my own next to hers and sit down. The room seems close to full now. People have to pick up their mats and move them over to make room for latecomers. I turn to Frankie, but she, too, has closed her eyes. I wonder what inconsequential thoughts are passing through her head. Perhaps she’s thinking about Brandon, the guy she’s in love with. She looks attractive like this. Meditation becomes her. The nostrils of her flattish nose wax and wane with her breath. Her mouth, split by a scar from a childhood harelip surgery, squirms a little. Frankie has the kind of complex beauty straight guys don’t fully appreciate. A smile leaks through her concentration, and she eases one eye open to catch me in the act of watching her.
“Welcome,” a voice says. A man is standing on the platform. It takes me a second to recognize Harris Love. He has aged. I know he must be close to fifty now, but his appearance still takes me by surprise. His torso is bare—he has on a pair of embroidered green pajama pants—and the eye-filling pectorals of his youth have disappeared. Time and yoga have subtracted from his attractive mass. They’ve carved out coat hanger shoulders, stray dog ribs, the suggestion of high, womanly hips. He’s also buzzed off his rock-star mane, leaving a sparse salt-and-pepper stubble clinging to his skull. I guess he looks healthy, but it’s the type of hard-won, skeletal healthiness you see in marathon runners and former drug addicts.
The room stills, all eyes turn to him, and the adoration in the room is palpable. He smiles at us, beaming unfocused goodwill. The distance in his blue eyes, I notice, still remains from his earlier days; in keeping with his new role, it has taken on a character of benevolent spaciness.
“In the beginning,” he says, his clear voice oiled by his perpetual smile, “there was nothing. And this nothingness needed nothing. But then, out of nothing, came a ripple. A wave. A cosmic vibration. The eternal sound of om.”
He opens his mouth and sings the syllable. Everyone else joins him, and the sound echoes through the room. Embarrassment heats the back of my neck. Frankie didn’t tell me there would be chanting.
The last voice dies out, and Harris lets silence hang in the air. “Breathe,” he says. Then, with more emphasis, “Breathe. Connect with your breath, and you will connect with your true nature. Let your breath be God’s breath. Let your nature be God’s nature. The nature of God is to love and to be loved. As you move through your practice this evening, breathe love.”
I glance around. I’m the only one in the room with my eyes open. I feel a giggle bubbling up in my throat.
Before it emerges, Harris moves us into our first pose. Music begins to play: ethereal Eastern vocals layered over a moody Western groove. The class starts with a few traditional sun salutations, the sort of thing Colleen leads us through at the gym, but Harris soon breaks away from the usual progression. His sequence of poses is difficult. I notice a little moisture forming on my forehead and in my armpits, and then all at once I’m drenched. I take off my T-shirt. Harris prowls the room giving students adjustments. He continues to spout his rhetoric. Every move we make has some metaphysical double-entendre. Forward bends are “gestures of devotion.” Backward bends are “flights into the unknown.” I try to ignore the talk and focus on the workout. A continually regenerating membrane of sweat envelops me, cascades over me, sloughs off of me. It feels good. I’m compulsive when it comes to exercise and enjoy testing myself physically. Harris walks by, and I wonder, in passing, if he has on any underwear. I think I detect pendular movement beneath the loose fabric of his pajama pants.
We move on to seated poses. The music slows, the lights dim further. Harris guides us through straddles, arm balances, inversions. I cast surreptitious glances around the room to compare my flexibility with that of the other students. A few girls near the front can also do full splits. No one else. During a forward fold, I feel Harris approach. “What a gift you’ve been given,” he whispers into my ear.
“Thank you,” I say, my face between my shins.
“May I take you deeper?”
I nod. He positions himself behind me. I can’t see what he’s doing—I can’t see anything—but I feel pressure on my back.
“Relax,” he says.
The pressure increases. At first I don’t understand what’s happening. His hands somehow wrap around my feet. His breath warms the nape of my neck. His chest presses into my back. My body tenses. I can’t believe it. Harris Love has mounted me in the middle of class. He exhales into my hair and bears down more insistently. I surrender to it. What the hell. I now know for certain he’s not wearing underwear.
Minutes pass, and he’s still on top of me. The class has come to a standstill. The other students must have noticed something by now. I become aware that the two of us are breathing in unison. I try to break from his rhythm but can’t seem to do it.
“Keeping your eyes closed,” he says, addressing the class but speaking into my head, “unfold your body and lie down on your back. Discover your final relaxation pose.” He eases himself off of me. On cue, the song ends and the room falls into silence. Who’s controlling the music? Is there a deejay? I sit up and open my eyes a little, half expecting everyone else in the room to be staring at Harris and me. They’re all on their backs, eyes closed, unaware. Harris guides me into a supine position and remains there, seated at my head, his hands on my shoulders. He begins to sing. His voice swirls and undulates like smoke. The foreign words sound guttural and mysterious. His hands move with the music, kneading my shoulders, pressing into the sides of my neck, cradling my head.
I should mention I have a thing for authority figures. The first guy who ever fucked me was my English professor during my freshman year of college. It’s been a pattern ever since. And although these men are always older and in positions of power, my crushes seem to have little to do with respect. I found my English professor’s take on Milton ridiculous and his meaty frame irresistible. Maybe I even prefer men who are, or whom I can render, a little foolish. When I spoke to a psychiatrist about it, I expected him to say it had to do with my father, a man who left my mother and me when I was a baby, a thoughtless, selfish man for whom I have no respect whatsoever. Instead, the shrink went on and on about the “mysteries of attraction.” He said as long as my inclination wasn’t hurting anybody, he could see nothing wrong with it and no reason to hunt for buried causes. I felt disappointed. I wasn’t interested in validation. But that’s what therapy’s all about these days, and Freud has fallen by the wayside. Or maybe the shrink just said what he did to get inside my shorts. Which, in spite of my doubts about his competence, I would’ve let him do anyway.
This propensity of mine must have something to do with the hard-on stabbing into my gym shorts right now. Memories of Harris in his movie star prime, easier to conjure now, with my eyes closed, no doubt play a part, too. I hope it’s not showing.
Harris finishes his song. “Breathe,” he says again. “Let your breath be God’s breath. Let your nature be God’s nature. God does not control. God merely loves. I know it’s not easy. One of the hardest lessons to learn is the lesson of nonattachment. Let go! Release your expectations, your wants, your demands. Unburden yourself and love unconditionally.” He holds my head in his hands as if he’s trying to brainwash me. “Love everything,” he says. “Need nothing.”
After class, I change back into street clothes and make my way out of the dressing room. The lobby has again turned into a zoo. Students mill around wearing magnanimous smiles on their faces. The air is thick with all the love they’re breathing. “Excuse me.” “No, excuse me.”
Frankie waves. She’s checking her voicemail messages. We walk out into the suddenly dark, suddenly chill evening. When we get into the car, she puts down her phone and looks at me. “You hated it,” she says.
“I liked it,” I say. “I could’ve done without the talk. But it kicked my ass.”
She claps her hands. “I’m going again tomorrow night. You’re coming with.” She takes a joint out of her purse and lights it. “This is always the best smoke of the day.”
“Did you notice all that attention he gave me at the end?” I say. “He was all over me. I mean, I heard rumors about him, but I never knew if they were true.”
She doesn’t answer right away. Her lungs are full of pot smoke. She shakes her head as she exhales, zigzagging the white stream coming out of her mouth. “You always think people are coming onto you.”
“Frankie, he was lying on top of me.”
“He’s a yoga teacher. He was adjusting you. That’s his job. There is such a thing as nonsexual physical intimacy, you know. Want some?” I take the joint, and she turns on the car. “Besides, he’s celibate.”
“No way. How do you know?”
“He talked about it in class. He leads a spiritual life now.”
“That’s bullshit. No one leads a spiritual life in Los Angeles. He just traded one kind of show business for another.” I take a ginger hit. With no food in my stomach, I have to be careful. “And even if he is, celibacy isn’t a sexual orientation. You can be celibate and horny.”
“I know that. Maybe he is gay. But that doesn’t mean he was getting himself off. Did you feel violated, Nick? Should we talk to a lawyer?”
“No. I got a boner.”
“See?” She takes the joint back. “You’re the one who’s horny.”
I settle into the seat and try to enjoy my buzz. The trees of Silver Lake slide by. It’s true I haven’t had much sex lately. But I, too, have done so by choice. It’s not that I don’t enjoy sex. I just enjoy even more taking the numbers I accumulate during an evening at some party, crumpling them up, and throwing them away.
I turn back to Frankie. “You want to get a juice with me?”
“I can’t,” she says. “Brandon called. I’m dropping you off and going over to his place.”
Brandon was Frankie’s boyfriend back when they both lived in Arizona. He worked as a bartender then. On the side, he created animated shorts, the kind with crude artwork and crude humor, and put them up on a website. They attracted the notice of some people in Hollywood, and two years ago, Brandon moved out to Los Angeles. His cartoon series, Alpha Babies, was picked up and fast-tracked. The show takes place in a daycare center where the spoiled toddlers of Hollywood’s most powerful movers and shakers spend their days. It’s a scathing take on the entertainment industry, and it’s poised to become one of the industry’s biggest moneymakers.
After Brandon first moved here, he and Frankie maintained a shaky long-distance relationship. Then Frankie came out a year later, ostensibly to launch her music career, but clearly also hoping to resuscitate Brandon’s love. It’s not working. I’ve only known Frankie for seven months, but I can see what she can’t. He has mostly, but not completely, discarded her. The only things keeping their relationship going are self-delusion on her part and intermittent interest on his. When she moved here, he told her he thought they should live separately. He just bought a condo in Brentwood, and she’s still stuck in our Los Feliz dump. He’s never been to our place. I’ve never even met him. She won’t hear from him for a week or more, and then in the middle of the night he’ll call and ask her to come over. And she’ll go.
Meanwhile, her music is going nowhere. I’ve gone to a few of her shows, and she knows how to play. I think the guy trouble helps in that respect. Her guitar rock has a wounded, smoldering wronged-girl flavor I like. Maybe she can work that angle and parlay it into some success. I doubt it, though.
Brandon, on the other hand, is about to make it really big. There’s a groundswell around him. You can feel it. Is Frankie a girl in desperate love, I wonder, or is she a hanger-on hoping to ride his success? Should I feel pity for her, or contempt, or both?
I wake up early the next morning, even though I don’t have to work at the clothing store until the afternoon. I feel sore from the yoga. The hunger, which went away after my first few days of fasting, has returned. I get out of bed and sit on the toilet for a while. Nothing.
I go to the gym to lift. The dizziness and soreness start getting to me halfway through my workout, but I keep going. This feeling of physical weakness, of wasting away, bothers me. I can’t wait until tomorrow, when I can eat again.
Back home, I shave. Once a week, I spend about two hours shaving my whole body. I shave everywhere, even my asshole. I could say I do it for my modeling, but that’s not entirely true. I mean, I don’t do porn. And I don’t think it’s sexual, either, at least not completely. I just have this thing about my body, a weird fastidiousness. Small aberrancies bother me. For the same reason, I use the tanning bed at my gym nude. I hate tan lines and try to keep my skin tone uniform. With an obsessive vanity Los Angeles has somehow rendered normal, I go over my body square inch by square inch, hunting for inconsistencies. But then, occasionally, I look at my whole body in the mirror and realize how bizarrely featureless it appears.
When I get home from my half-day at the clothing store that evening, I find Frankie on the couch with the curtains drawn. Her eyes are bruised from crying, and she’s clutching a green corduroy throw pillow on top of her head with both hands, as if she expects something to fall down on her. She always gets like this when she comes back from Brandon’s place. Often he’s behaved like an asshole: treated her as though she were a servant, remained aloof and uncommunicative, or told her he thinks they should really break it off for good this time. Sometimes he hasn’t done anything in particular. She just knows saying good-bye to him means not seeing him again for who knows how long.
I realize I’m supposed to comfort her—that’s why she’s having her breakdown in the living room—but offering consolation isn’t my greatest strength. I sit down next to her. “Is it raining in here?”
She takes the pillow off her head and tosses it on the floor. “Of course not. It never rains in Southern California.”
“He’s a prick,” I say.
She sniffles and wipes at her nose with the back of her hand. “I knew him when he was just a mortal. You know what I mean?”
I put my arm around her. “You still want to go to yoga?”
“I’m not up to it.”
“It might make you feel better.”
“I don’t want to feel better. Why do I need to feel better? Why can’t I just feel like this for a while?”
“You don’t have to do anything,” I say. I pick up the pillow and put it on the couch. “But I think I’m going to go.”
She looks at me, surprised. “Oh.”
My announcement takes me by surprise, too. “Is that cool? Because I really enjoyed the class yesterday.”
“Sure,” she says. “Definitely. You should go.”
By the time I’m ready to leave, she’s clutching the pillow again. “Bye, Frankie,” I say at the door. “He’s a prick.”
The yoga studio is packed tonight, too. Sitting on my mat, waiting for class to start, I watch students circulate around the room. I notice for the first time how much people here touch each other as they converse. Fingers on forearms, fingers on thighs. To my left, one straight guy gives another a shoulder massage. A diffuse erotic energy prickles the warm air. He hasn’t even entered the room yet, but I know it emanates from Harris.
When he does come in, his appearance again disappoints me. I never want to let myself dwindle like that. But then he speaks. “Welcome.” His rolling, mellow voice fills the room and gives him back his size.
He conducts us through the initial chanting, a few breathing exercises, the sun salutations. His bare feet pace the floor, his hands move from body to body, his dick swings back and forth like a metronome keeping time. He passes close to me. I glance up. His broad smile sweeps over me, but his spacey eyes show no sign of particular recognition. He moves on to a guy in front of me wearing a red bandanna on his head.
“May I take you deeper?” he says, his fingers already fanning out across the guy’s slick back.
The music swells, and the dizziness I felt at the gym this morning starts to come back. I notice Harris return to the guy again and again as the class continues. It pisses me off. Why can’t anyone else see it? He walks around in revealing pajama pants, yet he’s not an exhibitionist. He gives lingering, full-contact adjustments to his male students, yet he’s not a pervert. Instead, he’s just comfortable with the human body, nurturing, spiritual. I feel disgusted by his promiscuous message of unconditional love without attachment, and by the way he conditionally attaches himself to the youngest and most attractive guys in the room. Meanwhile, I get competitive, push harder, vie for his attention. It makes no sense. I’m being ridiculous. I realize that.
“From here,” Harris says, “move into a sustained standing backward bend.”
Now he comes at the guy from the front. A guy, by the way, who wouldn’t even be that hot without the bandanna. Harris presses their crotches together and supports the guy’s lower back with his hands. And this is a man who claims to be celibate. It’s hypocrisy, and even worse, it’s failure of self-discipline. People who can’t control themselves infuriate me. I’m enraged and, at the same time, massively aroused.
I drop into my own backbend. My spine arches, my fingers reach back. I ride a wave of indignation.
“Move beyond your body.”
As my head moves backward, my groin presses forward, toward Harris, demanding his notice.
“Move beyond your desire.”
I see the floor behind me. My vision narrows.
“Move beyond your ego.”
I may have stopped breathing. Anger, arousal, and dizziness all swirl in my head. I must look amazing right now.
Something explodes. I feel like I’ve shot a load. I’m somehow on the floor, but I don’t know how I got here. A voice drifts into my head. Harris’s voice.
“Can you hear me? Open your eyes.”
I can feel Harris’s hands on me again. I look up and see him smiling down. My skull is throbbing. I haven’t had an orgasm. I’ve fallen on my fucking head.
He stays with me for the rest of class. “Don’t leave,” he whispers into my ear. “I want to make sure you’re okay.” He sends someone to get an ice pack for my head, instructs me to stay on my back, and continues to teach the other students while keeping one proprietary hand on my chest. I’m embarrassed, of course. He’s making much too big a deal of this. But at least I’ve won. The guy with the bandanna has been forgotten.
The class finishes, but he doesn’t remove his hand. The other students begin to leave. I hear the rolling-up of mats, the slap of bare feet against wood, and the low, respectful effusions of blissed-out voices.
His face reappears above mine. “How are you feeling?” he says in his smile-inflected voice.
“I’m really fine,” I say.
“I feel responsible somehow.”
“No, it was my fault. I shouldn’t have pushed myself so hard. I’ve been fasting.” I sit up.
“Easy,” he says, helping me. “How long have you been on your fast?”
“I probably shouldn’t have come tonight. I’ve never fasted before. Or done much yoga.”
“You have a beautiful practice.”
“You’re tall for a gymnast.”
“Too tall. But I always thought I could compensate through sheer force of will.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” he says laughing. “Can I give you a ride home?”
“I have my car here.”
“Leave it. You shouldn’t drive.”
“I’ll be okay. I don’t want to trouble you.”
“It’s no trouble. I don’t want you to have an accident. You can’t always trust sheer force of will.”
I pretend to think about it. “Maybe that’s a good idea,” I say. “I still feel a little dizzy.”
Before we leave, Harris stops by the platform, picks up the icons one by one, and, bizarrely, kisses them. A small, campy image of Jesus Christ with a burning heart. A statuette of Buddha. A grainy photograph of an Indian man, whom I take to be Harris’s guru. It’s a menagerie of holy men. Each one receives a smile and a tender peck. I wonder if he’s putting on this show for my benefit.
He takes me out to his car. I get ready to appreciate the irony of seeing him unlock a brand-new gas-electric hybrid or similar ostentatiously earth-friendly vehicle. Instead he has an old, still-handsome silver Mercedes. “A relic from my pre-yoga days,” he says. The thing is a mess inside. Newspapers, grocery bags, and water bottles litter the floor.
“Excuse me,” he says. He leans over me, and from the trash at my feet he fishes out an iPod. He hooks it up to his car stereo. I notice a Blackberry sprawled open on the back seat, a wafer-thin mobile phone tossed in a cup holder along with some change and balled-up receipts. It irritates me to see such expensive things treated so carelessly.
He starts the car, and mellow reggae begins to play over the sound system. Sexy, but not insistently so. Harris knows how to soundtrack himself outside of class, too. He asks where I live, and I give him the address. After that, he doesn’t say anything for a while, but he still has that stoned smile on his face. Not hurrying, he slides through a changing light, and he laughs at himself. “It’s a bad habit of mine,” he says. “In my world there is no red or green. Only shades of yellow.”
“That seems to be everyone’s philosophy around here.”
“Where are you from?”
“And what brought you out here?”
“I’m an actor. What else?”
“What else indeed,” he says, nodding, grinning, blinking his eyes lazily. “So you came here from Wisconsin hungry for fame.”
“I went to college first. Harvard, if you can believe it.”
“You graduated from Harvard and went into acting? Your mother must’ve been devastated.”
“No, my mom likes the idea of me breaking into show business and becoming famous. She has this fanatical belief that I’ll be successful no matter what I do.”
“Mothers are wonderful,” he says. I can’t tell whether he means this ironically.
“What about you? You must’ve come out here hungry for fame once, too.”
“Sure,” he says, without elaborating. I can tell he’s the kind of person who doesn’t like to answer questions about himself.
“What made you stop acting?” I ask, although I already know the answer. Why does any movie star stop acting? Because people stop going to his movies.
“My guru,” he says. “He showed me that my films were just vehicles for spreading images of violence and conflict. I didn’t want to contribute to the glamorization of suffering anymore. Hollywood films make people think that conflict is their natural state. I want to help people find their goodness and capacity to love. I want to help people reach a state of peace.”
“That would be the end of art. Isn’t conflict the essence of drama?”
“Maybe it would just be the end of art as we know it. Maybe we need to find a new way of expressing ourselves.”
I’m not convinced. Zealots make the worst artists. Just think of Christian rock.
We pull up in front of my apartment. I feel nervous, but I’ve already decided to let him take the lead, and I’m curious to see what he’ll do. He turns to me and places a hand on my leg.
“I know it sounds terrible,” he says, “but part of me is glad you fell. I’ve enjoyed spending this time with you. You’re an exceptional person.”
I smile at him, cover his hand with mine, and press it into my thigh. “Thanks, Harris.” How the hell would he know if I’m an exceptional person? He just met me.
“Thank you.” He speaks the words tenderly and brushes my cheek with his fingers. But even now, his eyes meet mine without really connecting. “What’s your name?” he says, as if there’s nothing unusual in his asking this question so late in our acquaintance.
“Thank you, Nick.” He unbuckles his seatbelt and opens his arms. “Give me some love.”
We hug. The logistics of car embraces are always tricky, but Harris somehow manages to pull me into him and wrap both his arms around me with minimal awkwardness. His fingers rove across my back, palpating. He releases a sigh of contentment: “Ah.” Under pretense of massage, his hand roams toward my sacrum. Edges under my jeans. Slips beneath my underwear. And then a lone finger makes a final dash through my ass cheeks toward my anus.
As ambiguity vanishes and his touch transforms from suggestive to overt, I feel a thrill of vindication. I was right. And just as quickly, I realize I don’t want to have sex with this man. The attraction I felt before has worn off. I’ve proven his hypocrisy, too easily. But now I feel obligated to see this through. As if not doing so would be a failure of self-discipline on my part. I mustn’t miss this chance to fuck around with a celebrity. I mustn’t miss this chance to prove him a fraud. I mustn’t embarrass myself in front of him. For some reason, I mustn’t disappoint him. He maintains his hold on me. His finger continues to probe my asshole. I say, “Do you want to come up?”
Frankie’s already gone to bed. I’m relieved—it would’ve made for an awkward scene—but also disappointed. Part of me wanted to prove to her that they’re fuckers, all of them, just lying fuckers.
We go straight to my bedroom, and Harris’s languor vanishes. We’re naked within the first minute; he has my legs in the air within the first three. His kisses are gawky and rough. I should’ve expected this. I had him pegged all along for a lech dressed in robes of divinity, but somehow I didn’t think he’d give up his act so easily. I imagined screwing around with him would be like taking class from him: slow, sacramental, possibly tantric. I pictured myself discreetly rolling my eyes as he covered my dick with fawning, boggy kisses, pausing, perhaps, to ask, “May I take you deeper?”
His cock makes experimental jabs at my anus. Taking the hint, I indicate my dresser.
“I have rubbers in the top drawer.”
He gets a condom and a bottle of lube and readies his dick. I watch him standing next to the bed. Acid light from the streetlamp outside my window pours through the blinds and falls across the two of us. I think of that scene from the movie. He’s a different kind of cowboy now: starved, sandblasted, hollowed out, as if from years roaming the desert. And I, lying here on the bed, am not Juanita. I’m the desert itself. I gaze across the landscape of my hairless body, and that’s what I look like: a golden, curving, barren desert.
He scoops up my legs and goes to work.
“Say my name,” I whisper.
“Excuse me?” he says, still pumping.
“Say my name. It turns me on.”
His thrusts quicken. “I’m close.”
“Do you even remember? I just told you.”
He whines a little, trying to ignore me, in the moment, on the verge.
“Get the fuck off of me,” I say, kicking him away. Again tonight, I watch myself behaving like a child. I knew he wouldn’t remember my name. I set him up. Why am I acting like this? Is it the fast? Harris, now on the other side of the room, stares at me. The smile is gone. I can finally see something in his eyes, and it’s shock. “What’s wrong?” he says.
“This isn’t what I expected.”
“What did you expect?”
“I don’t know. A little chanting, maybe? A few breathing exercises? Something kinky from the Kama Sutra?”
“Are you saying you don’t care for my technique?”
“That was technique? Are you telling me you learned that from your famous Indian guru? What was he? A jackhammer?”
“Easy,” he says, anger tightening the loose contours of his face. For the first time, he looks like a real person.
“Sorry. Maybe that’s not your fault. But you could at least make an effort to remember my name.”
“What’s so important about a name? I thought we were two people sharing a moment.”
“Please don’t start preaching that nonattachment horseshit again. You can polish this up as much as you like, but it’s still just two faggots having anonymous sex.”
He opens his arms helplessly. “Look, I don’t know what you were hoping for, but I’m just a man. That’s all.”
“Now you’re just a man. What a load of crap. They think you’re a god in that yoga room. You know it. You love it. You ask for it.”
I want him to blow up, but he doesn’t do it. He picks up his clothes, says, “Excuse me,” and goes into the bathroom.
I lie there on the bed, feeling instantly appalled at myself. Regret throbs in my head like a hangover. When Harris comes out, wearing his clothes again, I apologize. “This fast is making me insane,” I say.
He shakes his head and smiles. “It’s cool. Don’t worry.” His face has reassumed the slack, limpid expression of a Botox injectee.
“No, it’s not. I can’t believe I spoke that way to you.”
“Hey,” he says, sitting down on the bed and petting my shoulder. “You felt something. You expressed it. You set it free. There’s nothing wrong with that.” I can hear the lilt of his teaching voice as he speaks. He has already transformed the incident into an exercise in yogic deportment. He has thrown up forgiveness like a wall. I start to say something else, and he places a finger over my lips. “Let it go. Don’t think about it. Just come to class tomorrow and practice your yoga.” But I can tell he’ll never give me personal attention in one of his classes again. All at once I feel my attraction to him come flooding back. Such is my perversity.
He stands up and makes for the door. I don’t want him to go. “Tell me something,” I blurt from the bed. He turns and looks at me. For a moment, I don’t know what to ask. “When you meditate, what do you think about?”
The smile fades from his lips. His eyes kindle, as they did in the movie. “I think about God,” he says.
He means it. It hits me like an electric shock. Buttoning his shirt, he walks out.
After he leaves, I go to the bathroom and look at my body in the mirror. It doesn’t appear human. I sit on the toilet. I imagine something disgusting, some Biblical snake, coiled inside me. I want it out. My ass feels achy, slimy. Maybe I was hoping he would unstopper me.
I get up, put on a pair of shorts, and go to the kitchen. I open the fridge. A half-demolished chocolate truffle cheesecake sits on the second shelf, uncovered, a fork still sticking from one side, sagging like a spear in a stuck bull. Frankie must have been binging while I was gone. I take it out and put it on the counter.
Frankie emerges from her room. She leans against the doorjamb and massages one sock-covered foot with the other. “Hey,” she says.
“Hey. Is this thing vegan?”
“Good.” I take out the used fork and throw it in the sink.
“I thought the fast wasn’t over until tomorrow.”
“Yeah. Well. I’m over it.”
“And you’re supposed to start with plain brown rice. You might puke that up.”
“Fuck it. You want a fork?”
We sit down on the couch. The first bite does make me feel sick. It has a vivid, carnal sweetness. I swallow and take another.
“Did you bring someone home?” Frankie says. “I thought I heard somebody.”
“Yeah. Some prick I picked up at yoga.”
“Score,” she says. If she suspects, or knows, it was Harris, she gives no sign.
I turn on the television. An episode of Alpha Babies is playing.
“I’ll change the channel,” I say.
“No, leave it. I haven’t seen this one.”
Neither have I. We watch. In this episode, Oregon, one of the regulars, has just found out her father has hired a model to stand in for her in their Christmas family photo. Devastated, she decides she must do something about her appearance. “I look twice my age,” the four-year-old wails into her mobile phone. “I’ve lost my cherubic good looks.” She starts planning her plastic surgery. “I want cheek augmentation. I want my dimples taken in. I want my skin bleached to a milky fucking white.”
Just then, the kids’ new yoga instructor arrives to lead them in a class. When he enters, I can see he’s meant to be Harris Love. There it is, in caricature: Harris’s bony body, his still-pretty face, his vacant expression.
“That’s right,” Frankie says. “I dragged Brandon to yoga once. He thought Harris was hilarious. How weird.”
When the cartoon Harris hears about Oregon’s problem, he takes her aside for a talk. “Don’t worry about what some guy thinks of your looks,” he says. “What you need is plastic surgery of the spirit. Give yourself a soul augmentation. Inject your heart with love. Wanting to be in the photo, that’s just vanity. Let go of your earthly desires.” He spreads his cartoon arms, his cartoon mouth smiles. “Love everything,” he says. “Need nothing.”
TIM FLORENCE received his B.A. in English from Yale University and completed the Boston University Creative Writing Program in August. He lives in San Francisco.
(c) copyright, Tim Florence, 2005; author retains all rights.