I endeavored to fall in love with Claire Livingston during that trip to Sacramento so many years ago. I worked tirelessly to be present with her, to not ask silly questions, to listen and inquire for additional details, to remind her of her beauty, to catch every door, to give her every courtesy I had ever read a man should give. Prior to leaving for California, I prepared this recipe for love's success, researching a myriad of books and articles on the topic. For the most part, it was a grand victory.
But, like any seed planted in poisoned soil, no amount of sun and water will yield a proper fruit. My inability to sense vulnerability in others, to experience raw emotion myself, prevented me from giving her anything more than what could be considered a pretty arrangement of flowers. I tell you this now, so that with every step I take from here forward, you will realize what I came to understand during that trip: I cannot be a lover. I'm something else, some other beast that can pass for good company provided you have a deep appreciation for the cold and awkward.
As you most certainly know by this point, whatever I lack in passion I make up for in obsession, and the natural extension of obsession is possession. I attempted to trick myself into believing my need to possess Claire was, in fact, love. Like a vision tapping at the rear window of my mind, the other me knew the truth but enjoyed no power. I could not be stopped. Jeff was gone, my youth was gone, and my project was a raging success. No visions came to shine light upon my next step, so I clung to the one that had fallen into my lap. Claire—I had to have her.
And have her I did. On my second week in Sacramento, after a rich dinner and many, many glasses of wine, we coupled on the massive bed in her suite. Neither clinical nor romantic, our intersection was a fumbled affair, made palatable by my admission of virginity and a shared sense of humor.
"Really? Never?" She asked.
"Not once. I'd like to blame my schedule, but I can't. Even my schedule feels sorry for me."
"What about oral?"
"I have excellent teeth." We both laughed. She unzipped my pants.
"I do, too," she replied, taking me in her hand. My delayed response to her grip was excused for a moment, until she paused and stood up.
"It seems you might need a little help," she whispered, leaning in to my ear, gently licking the edge of my lobe.
She stepped back and undressed in front of me. First her hair, twisted and up for our evening out, dropped with slight tug, falling like a flaccid serpent over her shoulder. As she unbuttoned her blouse, she began swaying her hips in a slow, provocative rhythm, while producing a soft pulse of percussion with her voice.
"Bum bump, da dum, bum bump, da dum."
She smiled, occasionally biting her lower lip, and rarely broke eye contact with me. Her shirt was tossed at my face, and I swatted it down so as not to miss the next portion of this private show. With her thumb and forefinger, she slid down the zipper of her skirt and pushed it down. It landed in a heap on the ground around her feet.
Hard as I tried, I could not shake the thought of my own old skin landing in a similar pile after having it stripped from my face. I shook my head to throw the vision out, and only succeeded when she turned around and kicked the skirt into the drapes by the window, knocking a plastic cup of water from the small table as it traveled.
Now facing away from me, she deliberately increased the breadth of her sway, bending forward slightly to impress upon me the round shape of her buttocks. I admired them and felt myself engorging slightly. A sense of relief swept over me as blood flowed slowly into my penis. I took it in my own hand and congratulated myself.
She turned her face towards me, and noticed my rhythmic celebration.
"Seems it's working."
"Indeed, but best you continue, just to be sure."
She unclasped her bra and slid her arms out of it. Her back still to me, she flung the undergarment over her shoulder. It landed on my head like a set of vintage headphones.
Turning her face towards me, she giggled at the sight. I smiled and shook the bra off.
She turned away from me again and stepped backwards until she was a foot away, and continued her slow dance. Putting both of her thumbs under the band of her underwear, she slid them over her buttocks and slowly down her slender legs. My face was less than six inches from her backside, which she wiggled for my benefit.
She stepped out of her underwear, splitting her legs open slightly to do it. Any deficiencies I had hitherto experienced gave way to a giant rush, a flood of blood into my member. I leaned forward and planted my face firmly into her ass.
She let out a little yelp followed by laughter.
"Okay," she said. "I see where this is going."
She turned around and let me see her front. Her thin frame, slightly flat breasts and muscular legs gave her a boyish appearance, but this did not deter me. For some magical reason, seeing her vagina up close gave me a sense of sexual vigor, and I felt that nothing would stop me from releasing within it.
Taking a step back again, she resumed her dance and encouraged me to rise and join her. I did, stripping off my clothes as I approached.
Standing across from her, I felt a surge of adrenaline, a singular need to enter, to consume. I wanted to take her in my hand and spread her over my body like lotion, until she melted into my skin.
"I need to be inside you," I said urgently.
"Wow," she said, taking me into her hand again. "I guess you would be ready, after all that time."
I grabbed her and pulled her toward me. My athletic build impressed her, as she let out a slight squeal. I kissed her deeply, leaving my eyes open slightly, for fear of a vision's rough entrance. She, too, had her eyes slightly open, which caused us both to smile.
"I'm going to toss you on that bed and make love to you," I reported, our lips still smashed together.
"I hope so," she answered, causing our teeth to momentarily connect.
I'd like to say that accessing her was easy, but it was not. I pushed too hard at first, not hard enough later. While this is to be expected from a virgin attempting to take command over an experienced partner, I felt no awkwardness during the act, only the deep need to make her my receptacle.
Ultimately, I did, after some time and several positions. We both lay on our backs, panting from the deed.
"Tell me, Charlie, what did you think?"
"I need more."
"Practice makes perfect," she said.
"No," I explained. "Not practice, although I won't argue that my skills are inadequate. I need more of you. I want to be inside of you like I've never wanted anything in my life."
She laughed, "I'm not surprised, Charlie. You've never been in this position."
"I'm not just talking about the sex, Claire," I said, turning towards her. The lines were taken almost verbatim from Steve Shepard's book, A Thousands Ways To Her Heart, which I read as I would have one of my college textbooks, taking notes and tagging relevant pages. Her smile dropped, and a wedge of tears formed near the bottom of her eyes. She stroked my face gently.
I kissed her hand and turned again towards the ceiling.
"Of course, I do really want to have more sex, too." I said, lightening the moment.
"I think that can be arranged," she replied.
"How about in two minutes?"
She laughed again.
I held her hand to my chest, and we laid in silence, our breathing synchronous and slowing.
"Too bad you fuck like an idiot."
"What?" I asked, turning towards Claire. Just past her, sitting in a chair next to the bed, Jeff sat shaking his head. He looked as he did just prior to his death, a drip bag hanging from a floor lamp behind him.
"It's like watching puppy drown in his water dish." He hammered on his morphine button.
"What's wrong, Charlie?" Claire asked.
I looked at her, and then back to Jeff.
"Go ahead, Charlie," he said. "Don't mind me. Fuck her again. Only this time, try to look less like you're having a seizure."
"I'm fine," I said. "Thought I heard something, but it was nothing."
"It's been two minutes," she said.
"Has it?" I answered. "I guess I better get to work."
"I'm not going to watch," Jeff snorted. "It's like getting cancer of the libido. I think I won't be hard for a month after this."
"Let me just freshen up, okay?" Claire requested.
"Okay," I replied. "Don't be long."
She rose from the bed and glided past Jeff into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her.
"Pretty cute," he said, admiring her backside. "I'd do her."
"You'd try," I whispered. "But fail."
"Now, Charlie, you think your new skin changes anything?"
"I know Claire is interested in me."
"Sure, but she doesn't really know you, does she?"
"Well enough. I'm not the same person I was."
"Course you are, Charlie. You've only thrown on some new duds."
"I'm not. You don't know me anymore."
"Okay," Jeff said. "Whatever you need to tell yourself. We both know who you are, what you've done, what you're going to do."
"What I'm going to do?!" I almost shouted. "What are you talking about?"
"You know. You know." Jeff hammered again on his morphine. "Well, it's been real nice catching up, Chuck. I'm going to take a walk and see if I can't rustle up some drugs and less ridiculous sex."
"See you soon, old friend."
"I'd prefer if you didn't."
"How far we've come, you and me," he said and vanished into the next room.
Claire came out of the bathroom.
"Were you saying something?"
"Just wondering how much longer you'd make me wait," I answered.
"Not another moment," she said. She climbed into the bed and slithered on top of me.
Ten months after that we returned from Sacramento, on May 15, Claire and I were married. Such a union drew a tremendous amount of interest, but we escaped by joining in Vienna, at her mother's recommendation. Upon learning of our intentions, an acquaintance of Peter's in Vienna, a world-renown spinal surgeon, secured the Imperial Palace for our nuptials. A gift for us from the people of Austria, said the simple email from the generous doctor.
My small flock of friends and family consisted of Peter, my mother, Tina, Mike, and my long unseen father, who attended the ceremony and little else on the wedding agenda. Although I covered all expenses for their first class travel, my father complained about the accommodations. Not surprisingly, our longest conversation dealt with this singularly insignificant issue.
"Worst bed I've ever slept on," he said, his permanent frown coming to life. "Must be made with mule feathers."
"Claire's parents consider this the best hotel in the city," I informed him.
"Claire's parents probably bought themselves golden spines."
"You can switch rooms if you like. Or hotels for that matter."
"I might," he growled. "I'm going to walk around this town and take a look."
He left without another word, and I only spoke with him a few more times during our two week stay, once to raise the allowance I presented to each of my guests, and a another time to provide him with my mother's room number, which I did against my better judgment.
Perhaps my father's inability to show any happiness or pride was born that day, years ago, in the garage of our old family home. When my mother phoned him to tell him what I'd done, I can imagine him setting down the handset and slowly releasing any feelings held hostage in his heart. In the wake of his emotional regurgitation, hooks flared out in all directions, as if a thousand fishermen cast at once from a single pier, dragging away any connections he held with us. My mother and I were no match for his retreat, it seems—no tiny scrub of love seemed left in my father's shell even by the time he arrived home.
I take responsibility for the incident, just as I have for every diabolical thing I've ever created, but I like to think that my father's disconnection from everyone else actually connects us in some sad, simple way. It is possible, I believe, that he viewed my strange behavior as an opportunity to withdraw from what he never wanted, never quite comprehended. Navigating life with a family is difficult for those equipped with the appropriate compass. For those of us without emotional orientation, everyday we find ourselves adrift in foreign waters.
A shade crept over me the day of my wedding to Claire. What should have been my finest day was, in fact, filled with strange palpitations in my heart. She, I wanted, but what was I to do with her once my claim was legally recognized? Certainly, I could not infect her with ancient sperm and position her in the kitchen as my father had done with my mother; nor could I drive her into one of the empty bays in my garage where I kept several fine cars. I would need to continue to impress upon her my normality, and I felt unsure of my own stamina.
Even at the ceremony in the ornate palace, I felt neither impressed nor joyful. Rather, I perceived a slow, soft weight crushing me. My breaths became shorter, my vision less precise. Like my so-called fainting episode in Amsterdam (which, incidentally, set up my initial interactions with Claire), I felt overwhelmed, emotionally exhausted and skimming on the surface of another breakdown. Since I claim to be deficient in what you would consider normal emotive faculties, I believe that playing the part of a passionate lover did me mental harm, much like an athlete can only perform for so long before the body requires rest.
As vows echoed through the gilded hall, I continued to portray the happy groom with enough conviction that no one except my father seemed to notice my internal strife. As the official prattled on about love and commitment, I momentarily glanced at dad. He possessed a queer smile, a devious sparkle in his eyes, and held the posture of someone who has recently solved a puzzle. I smiled wryly back, and, in effect, built a bridge of deceit that neither of us would dare traverse.
When the ceremony ended, Claire and I walked by the guests in our symbolic escape. The Livingston family, smartly dressed and affable as ever, blew kisses to us and cheered. My mother and Tina both dabbed bright tears from their eyes, and Mike, an arm around Tina in a show of support, gave me a wink. Next to my mother, serving as her date and counter to my father, Peter applauded and gave me a thumb's up.
Oh Peter, you must have been miserable with grief! How you managed the ceremony with such a cheerful demeanor is truly a credit to your carefully managed façade.
As we passed my father, he busied himself removing dust from the sleeve of his tuxedo, a gesture lost on everyone except me. Eight years later, after receiving news of his death, I wondered if he'd ever found another connection in his life to anything, anyone, or if he had come to terms with his lack of empathy. As heir to his heartless thrown, my first act was to tear down our neglected bridge—that last, pathetic connection to him. The task was easy for me, because by that point, I had already lost my marriage and my reputation—my heart was empty and dark.