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Last summer, I found myself coming off a crippling breakup. Somehow, things had gone horribly wrong between me and the love of my life. There was a time we’d talked seriously about “together forever,” but by the end of our two-year run I was scared to use the shampoo in the bathroom for fear she’d spiked it with Nair.
Our last year of cohabitation sank way past resentment or indifference or even hate. One night during the same old argument, she flung a boot the length of the hallway—with her foot, no less—hitting me in the crotch. After she locked herself in the bedroom, I uncurled myself from the fetal position and battered the door from the hinges, just to prove a point. (I no longer remember what that point was.)
We were both aggressive people, and at the end it was all-out emotional terrorism. She made a concerted effort during our protracted breakup to undermine me in the most vicious way. I wasn’t a man, she informed me, which was why we hadn’t had sex for months. I have to admit, it got to me. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought she might be right. After all, I’d spy a sweaty woman with a cleft palate on the Metro and go into a reverie of lust, while my hot, naked girlfriend at home left me cold and flaccid. Perhaps I really was less than a man.
This crisis simmered for a few months after our split until I lost my job. With a decent financial cushion, a steady flow of unemployment checks, and no obligations whatsoever, my life essentially became a stage on which I had unlimited license to work out all of my ego crises and psychodramas. I immediately plunged into what all my friends assured me was just the Darwinian social cauldron I needed—the D.C. bar scene. This turned out to be less therapeutic than it sounds.
She asked me for a light—this was at the Black Cat. She was beautiful and scathingly intelligent, the very reason I’d started sitting in bars every night. It was her birthday, she explained, and she was looking to have fun. At the end of the night, we drove to her apartment in Glover Park. Her roommate was home, so we went to my place instead.
At the time, I was staying in a friend’s unheated, unfinished basement. My ex-girlfriend had recently kicked me out of our apartment. My new, temporary room had a 6-foot ceiling, no electricity, and such a bad infestation of silverfish that I had to sleep under head-to-toe mosquito netting. My bed was foam padding on a sheet of plywood laid out on concrete blocks, and the only light came from a naked, yellowed bulb hanging overhead. Lucky for me, she found the whole setup transgressive and, thus, arousing. Or at least exotic.
All of my belongings were mixed together in garbage bags, and I couldn’t find the condoms. She sent me to the 7-Eleven, where I got a three-pack of Trojans and the largest coffee they had. I wanted to sober up as much as possible for the coming activities.
When we were about to get down to it, she stopped and said she had a confession to make. “It’s that time of month,” she told me. Did I mind? No, I did not mind.
As I showered in the morning, careful to breathe through my mouth as the red water swirled around the drain, I realized with equal parts relief and trepidation that there was nothing I wouldn’t do in service to my libido.
John was one of my ex–office mates—a sensitive, mild-mannered type from California. He was a former Olympic-level runner who’d blown out his back a year earlier and found that he was embarrassingly late to the party. He’d spent his entire adult life close to home, focused almost entirely on training. Between running, school, and work, he hadn’t even had time to find a girlfriend—just a couple blink-and-they’re-over trysts. Ask him if the girls were good-looking, and he’d change the subject. But now he was in a new city, determined to make up for lost time.
John and I were opposite in temperament, looks, and appeal, which made ours an ideal partnership. We never fought over a woman, because there was no woman whose tastes could possibly encompass both of us. Women inclined toward me thought he was a squarer Ned Flanders, and women inclined toward him thought I looked like a child-molesting garbageman. Between us, we had most of the field covered.
I admired John’s single-mindedness. Any fool can flash a Rolex or drop a comment about his six-figure salary to attract a bevy of venal trolls—it’s much harder to get by on your wits. John approached womanizing with an athlete’s discipline. He read that book on seduction techniques titled The Game, and before long he was regurgitating pickup routines full of nonsensical questions and psychobabble. (“You’re driving through the desert and you see a cube. What does it look like?”) When it didn’t work, and they laughed in his face or turned their back, he simply sidestepped to the next girl. It was, as he often said, a numbers game.
John had his blind spots, though. Every once in a while, when it was a slow night at the bar, I’d turn to John and ask, “Why are you out here all the time, prowling around? I mean, I know why I’m out here, but what’s your purpose?”
I knew exactly what he was going to say. His answer was always the same and always delivered with the same straight-faced gravity. “I guess I’m looking for that special someone. I’m looking for a wife.”
This never failed to make me laugh.
It was hard going at first. One slow night, I walked into Café Saint-Ex on 14th Street to meet John and saw a tall brunette sitting by herself, smoking and staring off into space. Sensing an opening, I sidled up and asked if I could have a cigarette.
“Smoking is an expensive habit,” she said coldly. “If you can’t afford cigarettes, you shouldn’t smoke.” She reluctantly shook a cigarette from her pack.
“What are you, a Republican?” I asked.
She picked up her drink and cigarettes, walked to the far end of the bar, and took a stool there. I sat and forced myself to smoke the cigarette, right down to the filter.
Fortunately, John showed me how to steel myself from such rejection. Another night at the bar, he spied a pretty European girl reading by herself at a table. “Watch this,” he announced. He walked over, sat down across from her, and said, “Can I ask what you’re reading?”
“No,” she said, not taking her eyes from the page. John walked back to his seat at the bar.
“She had bad teeth anyway,” he said.
Wander U Street and Adams Morgan long enough, and you’ll realize that what your mother told you is true: You can’t judge a book by its cover. People who appear to be cool turn out to be lame, and people who appear to be merely lame turn out to be downright despicable.
We once saw a grinning frat type in a blazer at the bar at Local 16 on U Street. He was passing drink after drink into the grasping hands of fake-tanned sorority types, pivoting at the waist as if he were doing medicine-ball exercises. The girls were careful to offer vague, tight-lipped smiles of gratitude as they downed their drinks, their eyes already drifting off in search of the next mark. It was clear from the poor sap’s gleeful expression that he was convinced he’d bought his way into at least one of their beds, and for the relatively cheap price of a dozen Jäger shots. When we came back downstairs an hour later, Splurgey was sitting at the bar alone, staring down into his glass. (This seemed like confirmation of one of The Game’s rules: Never buy a woman anything, even a drink, or she’ll squeeze you dry and discard you.)
Another night at the same bar, three giggling girls burst into the crowded men’s restroom. “There’s a long line for the girls’ room—y’all mind if we use yours?” As they noisily piled into a stall and closed the door, most of the guys were grinning in dumb delight—look, real live gurls!—but I saw one guy staring after them with unalloyed hate on his face. I imagine he’d just been rejected by one of the girls in the stall, or one like them, or a series of them. To a sexually frustrated man in a bar, female behavior like this—can you imagine three guys piling into a women’s stall?—might seem constructed specifically to rub your face in your own inadequacies. I was trying to think of some comment that might defuse the guy’s anger when he noticed me looking at him.
“What are you looking at, faggot?” he said.
Going out was like a job; John and I would punch in and punch out, whether we felt like it or not. Eventually, we gained momentum. It became clear that if you had decent hygiene, passable banter, and the endurance and nerve to make the rounds on a consistent basis, you’d be fine. You’d be better than fine. John developed some near-foolproof techniques; one, a nonverbal trick that I’d rather not disclose, was so effective that it induced women to pick him up.
We were soon mingling with all kinds of women. We met older single mothers. (When they get a sitter, they’re determined to take full advantage.) We met government contractors. (Their nighttime personae were the polar opposite of their buttoned-up daytime ones.) And we met 18-year-olds. (Each had told her parents that she was spending the night at the other’s house.)
But as we met more and more women, we realized that we couldn’t fucking stand at least 95 percent of them. Maybe 99 percent. This was fine with me. In fact, when I did meet one of the elusive 1 percenters that I actually liked and respected and had something in common with, I did everything I could to piss all over our chemistry. I’d been down the relationship path, and it had ended in a blood bath. Now, all I wanted were disposable encounters. After my 35th consecutive conversation about American Idol, though, I realized this probably worked better in theory than in practice.
So many nights I’d be standing there on autopilot, drink in hand, inwardly aghast. What in God’s name is she talking about? I haven’t the slightest idea, but worst of all—what is this fucking nonsense coming out of my mouth? “Yes, I, too, love the Stars: They’re Just Like Us! feature in Us Weekly!” What is wrong with me? I’m sitting here nodding and smiling like a fucking bobblehead doll. Have I no integrity? Must I demean myself for even the tiniest measure of relief?
As John put it once, during the course of an especially discouraging night, “It’s depressing when every girl you talk to is dumb or obsessed with money or has no sense of humor or won’t shut up about herself or prattles on about some stupid TV show. It’s depressing when you find out that everyone is dull and stupid, but it’s even worse when you realize—so are you.”
While visiting my sister in Seattle, I met another tourist in a bar there. She and her friend were in from Florida and were with two guys they’d found on MySpace. There’s an unspoken rule that you don’t move in on a girl if some other guy’s already putting time in, but she was unequivocally not interested in the other guy, so I swooped in. Somehow, the five of us ended up going to someone’s lavish house on the north side of the city at closing time.
The other couple adjourned to the outdoor Jacuzzi, and my girl and I went to the basement, leaving the odd man out to wander the house alone. My girl and I were still circling each other in a preliminary fashion when we heard someone upstairs sprint across the house and burst through the front door. We got up to the ground floor just in time to find the odd man out re-entering the house brandishing a handgun. As my erection wilted, he explained that he’d seen someone outside “messing with his car” and had retrieved his trusty pistol from the glove compartment in case they came back. This, despite the fact that it was 3 in the morning in a wealthy, gated community, and he drove a beat-up Honda. The guy stood there posturing with the gun, making faces suggestive of impending homicide as he looked out the windows. Clearly, I was supposed to perceive a message in all this. As if on cue, the gunman proclaimed, to no one in particular, “Andy don’t play!” His friend, standing nearby in a towel, looked at me slyly and said, “That’s right.”
My girl took my hand and led me away. I had to turn my back on Andy, and as we made our way ever so slowly down the hallway, I kept thinking that the bullet travels faster than the sound of the shot. They’d probably never even find my body. I’d left my sister and friends at the bar with nothing more than a lecherous wink as I piled into a car full of strangers.
When we got to the bedroom, she seemed to have been turned on by the drama. I was not. No piece of ass is worth getting shot for, I thought, except maybe Vida Guerra. The whole time, I kept waiting for Andy to kick the door in and empty a clip into both of us. Obviously, this thought wasn’t conducive to a satisfying sexual experience.
John and I were out there four, five, six nights a week. Nothing murders the soul like repetition. Unlike John, I resisted falling back on memorized routines or regurgitated gambits, but if you do something often enough, you start to repeat yourself. After a while, my mouth was moving but my brain was in the next room. I started to feel contempt for the women I met; the more they were into me, the more contempt I had for them—are you actually falling for this tired old bullshit?
After a run of 11 consecutive long nights, my immune system basically collapsed. I came down with the flu and bronchitis. John and I also became depressed. We’d naively believed that a woman—or a procession of them—was going to save us. When that illusion was stripped away, the effects were devastating. As John once said, “If I hadn’t already hated everybody from the beginning, I’d have turned into a misogynist by now.”
Last fall, a girl I had briefly worked with in the past suddenly took an inexplicable interest in me. She had a luscious, pert ass, and she knew that I liked it. We met up for drinks at the Black Cat, and afterwards, we went to her house in Georgetown.
During the walk there, she casually mentioned that she had a chronic back problem and that she needed frequent massages. In fact, her back was acting up at that very moment. Taking my cue, I offered to give her a massage as soon as we got to her house. She hesitated; actually, she had a very specific and somewhat unusual back condition. The only thing that gave her relief was direct stimulation of the sciatic nerve. Did I know where the sciatic nerve was? Of course I did, I said. I didn’t have the slightest idea.
When we got to her house she said she was going up to her room to get ready for the massage. I was to come up in a few minutes. I went to the kitchen and drank out of the faucet to try to sober up. On the one hand, I figured it was a done deal; on the other, this girl was from San Francisco and hampered by a notoriously addled sense of political correctness. She was the type of girl who’d accuse you of patriarchal oppression if you took the last office bagel. The fact that I reveled in a kind of vulgar indifference probably accounted for a good part of our chemistry, but I knew it could also be an obstacle if I went too far.
When I went to her room, I found her lying on the bed. She was face down, wearing lacy underwear, with pillows stacked underneath her stomach. Her ass protruded into the air. When she heard me enter the room, she reached around behind her to grasp her ass with both hands. “So the nerve runs down through here; you’ll have to really press down hard.”
I sat behind her on the bed and started to knead her ass. Lust descended on me like a sickness; I almost felt like vomiting. As the massage went on, though, I began to appreciate it on its own merits. I’d never been able to admire a girl’s ass without the simultaneous distraction of being hilt-deep in it. On a purely aesthetic level, it was spectacular. Before long, my erection had gotten so painfully intense that it felt like it was going to explode.
But as I was about to ease her underwear down, she turned and said, “Lie down here and let’s just talk for a while.”
I was shocked. Talk? We’d been talking all night. The only thing I wanted to do even less than talk was to pretend that I wanted to talk. Her request was almost certainly one of token resistance—perhaps something to make her feel like she hadn’t given it all up at once—but it was one hoop too many.
I refused. There was a moment of silence, and then she asked, “What?”
“I don’t want to talk. I have no interest in talking right now.”
She seemed to consider this. “Then you can’t stay in bed with me,” she said.
I rolled off the bed and lay on the floor. It was childish and petty, but I didn’t see any alternative. What was I supposed to do, lie there and talk about the weather until she deigned to open the gates? I suppose the hard-boiled thing to do would have been to put my shoes on and walk out. But it was late, I was tired and drunk, and I’m ashamed to admit that I still clung to some shred of hope that she’d drop her bluff.
No such luck. I lay on the floor as she lay on the bed. She gave me a couple more chances to repent, but I refused.
Finally, she got up in a huff, brushed her teeth, gargled, and took her contacts out, signaling an end to the night. As I watched her pad barefoot around the room in her underwear, her ass jiggling with each step, I genuinely felt like weeping.
Rock bottom might have been one night at Saint-Ex. It was a slow, rainy Tuesday night, and John and I were the only people in the basement other than a married couple having dinner. We were about to leave when two women came in, marched straight over to our table, and asked if they could join us.
They were lawyers, and even though it was almost 11, they’d just gotten off work. Did we party? Would we buy them drinks? Sure. The girls paired off with us, and before long, my girl had lured me into the bathroom. As soon as the door locked, she pulled the front of her shirt down with both hands, exposing an impressive rack. Holding a bare breast in hand, she told me to “bite it.” I shrugged and did so. “Harder,” she said. I bit it harder. “Harder!” I bit it as hard as I dared, just short of drawing blood. The situation had ceased to be the least bit sexual for me. I mean, I’m not even a breast man.
“I don’t think so,” I said. I was feeling sick to my stomach.
She got right in my face and bared her teeth. “I’m going to teach you. Would you like to come home with me so I can teach you?”
“No,” I said.
At some point, I realized: It always costs a little more than it’s worth. I was always feigning interest, fake-laughing, or pretending I didn’t hate some shitty band. And after a short while, I hated myself for it. I—the essential I, the I whose interests extended beyond sodomy—had relinquished control.
Eventually, I hit my limit. I met her at a bar, in the usual fashion. We got together the next week for dinner and the date lasted three consecutive days and nights. One morning I woke up and my first thought was, What the fuck am I doing here? I didn’t like this person, and this person didn’t like me, despite what she thought. What she thought she liked was just a highly refined, time-tested Pavlovian line of bullshit designed to appeal to her baser instincts. The whole charade imploded in an instant. I was revolted, as much with myself as with anything. I mumbled an excuse and left. I never saw her again.
I figured I was marked for karmic payback. I became convinced I was going to die of AIDS. When the test came back negative, I settled on cancer. I stopped leaving the house altogether, cut off human contact, and spent most of my hours on the sofa reading Dostoevski, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
As it turned out, it dropped on John. A girl he’d been intermittently sleeping with for a while started calling him. He didn’t take her calls or call her back, even though she left messages saying she needed to talk to him. Finally, after a week of stonewalling, she e-mailed him—she was pregnant. He called me and asked what to do.
“Abort it,” I said.
She was rabidly Catholic, he said. She’d never go for that. Besides, it was already too far along.
I thought about it. “I guess you could always pull a Scott Peterson…”
A few months later, she had the baby, and they gave it up for adoption. In person, John is now distant and slightly punch-drunk, perpetually preoccupied. I don’t ask with what.
I keep telling him he needs to get back out there with a vengeance—hair of the dog that bit you, that type of thing—but he refuses.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Robert Ullman.