Lust & Philosophy (ch. 5): “Each new walk down the stretch was charged with expectation, at once a cornucopia and a minefield of possibilities”

I returned from the U.S. in September to start another school year at BFSU. As the days went by, each new walk down the stretch was charged with expectation, at once a cornucopia and a minefield of possibilities. Sooner or later Cookie would be coming my way. Sooner was just as likely as later. On some days I was confident I would know what to say to her in the event of her appearance. On other days doubts sprang to mind. I worried she would burst into view just when I was sunk in such thoughts and most dreaded meeting her. It would take supreme agility to rouse myself in time to nail her. I would never be able to gather my wits together in the split second they were needed. Opportunity is bald in back and can only be grabbed by the forelocks, the old myth goes. She would loom up with such suddenness she’d already be behind me by the time I noticed her, without recognizing me, or pretending not to recognize me.

Or there was the prospect of spotting her coming at me from afar and being given a precious few moments to ready myself. One convenient thing about Cookie was her pronounced pear shape – broader in the hips than the shoulders – enabling me to pick her out among a crowd at a distance. I merely had to scan my visual field for any large-hipped females, on auto pilot as it were, freeing myself up to forget I was looking for her. There were even times when I think I forgot about her. Also making identification easy was her distinctive gait, measured and graceful, stamped more indelibly in my mind than her face. Yet the very likelihood of generous preparation time was even more frightful. So much so that her arrival on the scene would commence an interval of terror, like the specter of an approaching gunman shooting people in his path.

Such thoughts by themselves, even without the physical intrusion of Cookie, could usher in a state of anxiety. When this happened, my perception splayed: noises were cacophonous, colors electric, odors razor-sharp. I was one degree removed from the wretchedness of full-blown synesthesia, although things have calmed down considerably since my old flashback days in college, occasioned by a first reading of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.

It had been an uncommonly cold Canadian winter in my freshman year at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. The campus facilities were closed for the semester break so I couldn’t go swimming. I was angry and depressed in my mother’s apartment on the outskirts of the city. To pass the time, I set about reading all of Shakespeare, starting with the tragedies.

We all know about the harrowing poetry of King Lear, and it’s a bit less harrowing for that reason; indeed the more often famous passages are quoted, the more banal they become. The early Titus foreshadows King Lear in the extreme humiliation and degradation the respective protagonists undergo. Both plays could be described as psychological investigations into the destruction of human personality, though Lear obviously goes much further in this regard. With Titus Shakespeare was also upstaging the violent plays of Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe through parody. But this background context was of course lost on me on naïve first reading. The play wreaked havoc and assumed painful literality inside my gloomy brainpan.

Titus’ daughter Lavinia is ravished by the sons of the Empress Tamora, her tongue cut out and hands severed to prevent her from revealing the identity of the rapists. Not only did I feel Titus’ agony at the sorry sight of Lavinia, the language itself came to life and seemed to enact on me what the words described, as if the knife that Titus exhorts Lavinia to use on herself pierced my own heart:

When thy poor heart beats with outrageous beating,
Thou canst not strike it thus to make it still.
Wound it with sighing, girl, kill it with groans;
Or get some little knife between thy teeth,
And just against thy heart make thou a hole;
That all the tears that thy poor eyes let fall
May run into that sink, and soaking in
Drown the lamenting fool in sea-salt tears.

Titus cuts off his hand as ransom for the release of his two sons; their heads are returned instead. In revenge, he captures the rapists and bakes them into a pie, which their mother proceeds to eat until Titus triumphantly reveals to her what she is doing. Only the final scene’s slaughter prevents the cycle from continuing. At this point the outrages have themselves taken over as the true protagonist, and the formulaic plot becomes irrelevant to the play’s main agenda: a shamanic celebration of some long-lost tribal rite, performed without being understood, whilst killing appears as a mysterious form of production, as if humans were literally grist for a mill run by a colony of giants.

I myself was not now a victim of mutilation. There were no signs of blood around me. Yet slaughter was in the air, the tension overwhelming. I lay wide-awake the entire night, my heart scrunched into a fist. In the morning the kitchen knives pointed at me with menace. The sandwich I ate for lunch jabbered insults to my face. Hostile trees swiped at me with their branches. Cars grunted and growled like animals, their grills twisted into scowls. Their gathering acceleration launched the air-raid siren of a nuclear attack.

I headed to the campus counseling clinic, where I was led into a psychiatrist’s office with a row of interns present. I described my experience reading Titus Andronicus. He listened in jaded silence, mumbling observations to his note-taking students, and nothing to me. More jaded silence. No less freaked out after the counseling than before it, my next stop was the emergency room. An unsmiling physician inserted a needle into my arm. As the chlordiazepoxide flowed through my vein, I began to pick up the pieces of the day. The next day was as bad as the first. I guess because I realized things couldn’t really get much worse, the following two days were a degree less severe. I got accustomed to the condition over the next decade. Thereafter it subsided into a dormant state, capable of reactivation at any disturbance or period of tension, of which Cookie’s abrupt appearance was the next expected instance.

On more relaxed days when I was quite prepared for Cookie’s encounter, other potential hurdles arranged themselves in my path, the likeliest being of course that she would be with a man, or I would be with a woman. Confronting her in such a situation is not forbidden, but it would be awkward and embarrassing, and might even turn her off.

Another possibility was that I would be late for class and in a rush, with last-minute lecture preparation coalescing in my head. Here I would have no one to blame but myself for failing to shift gears. If she was already on my mind upon sighting her, I might be able to seize the moment. I could surely sacrifice a few minutes of my students’ time. I could even frankly ascribe my reason for being late to this special occasion, and they would laugh and understand. But I cannot deny the deeply ingrained norms of behavior we are all burdened with: the same unconscious compulsion that makes us swivel around when the policeman hails us keeps us pointed straight ahead on our way to work. She too might be in the same frame of mind and speed up her gait to discourage my approach, or simply fail to notice me right in front of her. I resigned myself to the knowledge that the synchronicity needed to spark our encounter was much too fragile a thing to survive the pounding steps of our daily trajectories. In broad daylight and in full view we would pass each other like two ships of the night.

There were still more obstacles. What if after the successful prosecution of a new diet she had lost so much weight since the last encounter that the hips were gone and the face too gaunt for me to recall? Or if recognizable, then significantly less attractive? What if serious weight gain had puffed out and distorted her face, likewise obscuring recognition just enough to cause momentary confusion and paralysis of action? What if she was pregnant? What if her next smile revealed terrible teeth? What if I chanced upon her squatting on the pavement, chewing seeds and cursing someone on her cellphone in working-class dialect? What if I caught her hawking and spitting or openly blowing her nose and wiping it off her face with her sleeve? Though women from the countryside generally don’t wear jeans but polyester slacks. Anyway, it still had to be established that we weren’t too much beyond each other’s station. I must keep reminding myself not to assume we were somehow matched for each other, that the sociocultural gulf separating us wasn’t vast. For that matter what if I saw her in the back of a chauffeur-driven Audi? What if I saw her in professional attire leading a delegation of academic officials? What if the next time I saw her she was not only every bit as attractive as my imagination had embellished her, but much more so?

I mused over the problem of that class of women who are always out of reach, or just out of reach. The closest I ever got to snatching someone out of the distant tier above was back in the long lost era of my high school years, the pregnancy of my life, bursting with adventure from each day to the next, having what can only be described as a legendary status, each memory a vivid oil painting.

Kicked out of the house in the summer vacation of ‘75, I hitched a ride to the mountains, looking for work. My first stop was Banff, in the Canadian Rockies, where I found a job serving soft ice cream at the Banff Buffeteria. The very first day on the job two girls with remarkable bodies walked in, a blue-eyed blonde my age named Sherry, and Ginny, four years older with long wavy brown hair, sparkling black eyes, and the “Stones” embroidered on the back pocket of her jeans. They were from Vancouver. I recall Sherry being hot but I scarcely noticed her since I couldn’t take my eyes off Ginny, who was altogether of a different, more marvelous order. In the evening they came back. Ginny invited me to join them later at the King Edward Pub.

My shift over, I walked over to the tavern. Snarling back and forth along the street in front was a turbocharged shiny black van with Alabama license plates. One of the occupants taunted a hitchhiker. The hitchhiker gave them the finger. The van screeched to a halt and three identical men dressed in black with long beach-blond hair jumped out, flailing.

“We’re from Alabama! Where are you from?”

Freaks gathered around the Americans and used holy silence to calm them down. Outnumbered, they filed back into their van.

I found Ginny and Sherry sitting inside with more freaks. There was a youth hostel a few miles outside of town with communal tents, they said. We left the tavern. The black van was still poised outside. Ginny approached the Alabamans and asked if they would drive us to the hostel. We got in. As in those dreams where one minute someone is a deadly stranger and the next a gentle puppy, they were surprisingly docile inside their van. They dropped us off and disappeared gracefully down the road without a trace.

The hostel cost only a dollar a night and was run by freaks. You could choose a single cot in the men’s or women’s bunkhouse or a double cot in the couple’s bunkhouse (marriage wasn’t a requirement). We sat around the campfire drinking Molson Canadians while a freak played a guitar. Ginny snuggled next to me and grabbed my hand. She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever met and she just grabbed my hand.

She led me to the couple’s bunkhouse. Eight cots were paired together to form four double beds. Sherry had latched onto an older freak and they shared the adjacent bed. I laid out our two sleeping bags on the cots. Ginny pulled off her shirt and big braless boobs tumbled out. She kept her black silk panties on. We got inside my sleeping bag and she wrapped her legs around me. She was so soft she felt like one long breast. But she was on the rag and I wasn’t allowed inside her panties. I didn’t understand why that should have prevented us from going all the way, but she was adamant. Sleepless the entire night, I moaned, a virgin at sixteen.

She promised to be with me the next evening but failed to show up at the restaurant, and I couldn’t find her at the tavern after work. The thought of not seeing her was unbearable. I began a tense two-mile trek to the hostel along the highway. Eventually a van pulled up.

“Isham?”

It was Ginny. I jumped in. Our second night together was as ecstatic and tortured as the first. At dawn she finally let her panties come off and I went down on her. We were fully exposed with the sheets off. I didn’t give a fuck if the other couples in the tent were watching us. A tampon string protruded but there was no sign of the blood with which I would gladly have painted my face, I was so in love with her.

We got up and dressed. The guitar-playing freak was hanging around outside the tent. He had noticed a beer opener hanging from my belt that was stamped in the shape of a guitar and approached me. He was spellbound and wanted it. Sorry, but I didn’t want to give it away. Freaks are generous with one another, he pleaded. If one has something that’s more suitable for another freak, he should give it to him in the spirit of brotherhood. He plays the guitar while I don’t, so I should give it to him. The material value isn’t an issue; after all, it’s only a cheap trinket, but one of rare and immense value to him: a guitar beer opener. It would simply be the most fitting gift ever to have passed from one hand to another, and I am lucky enough to be on earth at this moment to realize this exchange. I will feel good about it, knowing the guitar beer opener found its true home. He will dangle the opener from his neck with pride. It will take on talismanic significance….

The more eloquently pleaded the freak, the more stubborn I became. My refusal followed, of course, from Ginny’s refusal. Had she let me inside her, the freak would have gotten his beer opener even before asking. But he hung from my refusal and I from Ginny’s refusal and she from the planets by eternal hooks.

I was also equally cognizant of my failure to seize the meat of the event.

In the evening I began another tense trek along the highway. This time no van pulled up with Ginny in it. Earlier they had mentioned staying at another hostel this night, a simple campground for tents a few miles beyond the first hostel. I cried as I walked the entire distance, too distraught to bother thumbing a ride. I found Sherry and the guy she was with in his tent at the campground. She didn’t know what had happened to Ginny. They let me share their tent.

In the morning we went back to town looking for Ginny, and even Sherry seemed worried. Then we spotted her on the street. To my horror, they announced they were going back to Vancouver that afternoon. I myself soon wound up back in Edmonton, for that very day a rumor swirled at the restaurant that the RCMP were in Banff looking for Americans without valid work permits. As I was unsure of my status (I was in fact a legal Canadian resident), I quit. Back in Edmonton, I called Ginny up. She was sweet on the phone; it was hopeless.

I have since cultivated sexual relationships with great bodies and take whatever looks I can get. In Beijing I kept an ad in an online dating service. Many men have an upper cutoff point; I have a lower cutoff point. Without a certain sensation of heft settling on me, I can’t get excited. Only women weighing sixty-five kilograms or more need reply, photo required. My ideal female weight is in the seventy-five to eighty-kilogram range. I guessed Cookie to be about seventy kilograms, promising to increase with age. The latest woman to reply to my ad, who called herself Lily, claimed to weigh seventy kilograms. A prim photo of her face was not encouraging, even with a professional makeup job. I decided to give her a shot anyway and meet her for lunch at the school gate (she lived in the neighborhood). The thought occurred to me while waiting for her that a mischievous deity might shove Cookie at me precisely when Lily showed up. But the devil himself could not have devised a more ingenious method of throwing me off-guard than what actually happened.

A magnificent set of hips in tight slacks and short jacket approached from south of the gate – not Cookie, I quickly ascertained, but a woman of average looks, hair pulled back in a ponytail. That was an ass worth closer inspection but it would be a few moments before she acquired enough distance to give me a rearward view. I then glanced at my watch: twelve o’clock, our designated meeting time. The Chinese tend to be punctual on dates and Lily would be arriving any second. Just as the great ass passed by on my left I turned to look at her again. Another woman with her whom I had not noticed was returning my gaze with a searching, quizzical expression. It was Cookie! By the time she turned back to her friend they were already a significant distance from me heading north on the stretch. The woman in the slacks must have been the same person with Cookie on my previous sightings. But this time it was not her friend’s but Cookie’s outsized hips that were obscured, now heaving against her long down coat from behind.

Lily was standing before me. She was quite homely.

*     *     *

Chapter 4: “Kind of like Hot Wheels and tits and the Day of Judgment all rolled into one”
Chapter 6: “In the town center lawn is a crazy quilt of motley freaks smoking pot and playing guitar”

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