by Jacob Paul
You unbutton his third (or is it fourth?) shirt button down and clutch a fist of his chest hair, right between the two blue hands of his “All Four Fingers of Rock-and-Roll” tattoo. You figure that Lyle’s bound to slip eventually, because a) his whole life has been one giant slip, and b) it seems deeply fucking unlikely that he’s somehow cleaned up his act since you last saw him, merely a month ago, when he migrated through Fort Collins, chasing the “pow-pow” to Canada, and declared his mandate to “put the fun back in Hannah.”
He fully fucking derailed your reading for your doctoral exams is what he did, despite your insistence on needing to read a paean called “The Big Toe,” and another entitled “Solar Anus,” both written by an ex-monk who claimed Paris’ brothels as his true church.
Anyway, your scalp tingles when you clutch his chest hair, and now it’s your spring break, and why the fuck does he get to be sober, to have his sobriety so respected? Turnaround is fair play, even if you can’t bring yourself to so much as think the phrase, “put the fun back in Lyle,” let alone utter it, though that is what you intend.
You hold your mouth very close to Lyle’s and the shot glass even closer. After all, this is the guy who says that the man’s keeping down his true identity, which identity is – his words, not yours – is that Lyle’s someone who believes in fun, like, really believes in it, truly. And when you say, Lyle says this, you don’t mean he just said it once, drunkenly or jokingly, you mean Lyle has told everyone who will listen that he won’t let the man take away his right to be fun. He would claim fun as an ideology, if he knew the word ideology, which word you tend to define after the fashion of another French guy, a Marxist theorist, the French guy who stabbed his wife to death when he was in his seventies, definitely not a fun dude. Still, if you explained ideology to Lyle, he’d claim that his ideology was fun, just the one word, no subjunctive or conditional framing. Lyle has declared this identity, fun, since you first met him at Red Rocks four years ago, when your best friend from undergrad dragged you to your first (and last) Phish concert, and Lyle was the guy to see to hook both of you up, which he did, and he hooked up with you. And wasn’t that an abject tent to wake up in, next midafternoon sun.
“Come on, Lyle,” you say, letting go, leaving your fingers on his chest. “Please? You have to! It’s my birthday.”
“But I quit!” he whines. “You know I quit drinking! I’ll die, Hannah! And it is not your birthday!”
“Oh, yeah?” you taunt. “Then when is? When is my birthday?”
Lyle looks around the club. There’s a not unattractive blush creeping up his tawny cheeks and you can feel his heart trilling, the thing’s beating so fast, and besides, you didn’t ask him to idiotically commit to not letting abstinence bar him from his sodden milieu. It was his idea to buy the tickets to this show, for you to make this trip south explicitly to see him, to – his words, again, not yours – to see him more intentionally, to see him not just as an after-hours escape from your sister and her kids, who moved here to Colorado Springs a couple of years ago, but to see him as more than that. And drive down you did, but he’s sober, and so are you.
Still, you twinge at the thought that maybe it’s the “fun,” which you know for the desperate euphemism for getting fucked up that it is, that’s kept Lyle from outgrowing macramé hemp bracelets and cowrie shell chokers and Izod Oxfords and a willingness to pull what he can of his otherwise corporate haircut back into a ridiculous facsimile of a ponytail.
Your twinge engenders a fellow twinge, because Lyle wasn’t already decked out thus when you showed up at his apartment, not this time; and when you smirked: aren’t you gonna get your gear on, buddy? Lyle’s lips twisted, the signification of which – inner turmoil risen of indecision – you uniquely can decipher on account of your having read that seminal text on the interpretation of dreams, penned by that Viennese misogynist who shall remain unnamed.
Lyle paused like that, lips twisted, pausing, itself, uncharacteristic for him. Then he extracted neck-thong, wrist-cuff, and hairband from the bathroom drawer where he’d neatly stowed them. His entire apartment, for the first time in memory, is neatly stowed away, wiped down, and tidied up. Granted, “in memory” is a phrase based on those of your periodic visits to see your sister, since she moved down here, post-divorce, those visits to her on which you decide to reach out to Lyle, which decision always ends up feeling the way your tri-annual choice to smoke cigarettes feels. You needn’t clarify that by this you mean reasonable upon intoxication, painful at first puff, caustically shameful on the morrow, but, nonetheless, requisite between that puff and passing out.
Twinges three and four: Three is that you didn’t just decide to let Lyle know you were in town in a fit of drunken restlessness, but made him the logic for your visit. Four is how oddly pathetic his apartment seems cleaned up, the way the lack of clutter denudes the Kokopelli-print Mexican blanket tacked to a wall, and the dancing-elephant-themed futon cover, and the framed poster prints of Gandhi, Ram Das, and Bob Marley beneath a trophy shelf now noticeably absent of exotic empty beer bottles, their hips thick in dust.
With four twinges tucked under your oversized belt buckle, prominent beneath your exposed midriff, there’s little need to also add an anxiety that Lyle invited you down as part of his general tidying up, an anxiety that you, or that some fucked up next step in a relationship with you, might constitute a tidying, that he might think you a stringer for his twelve treads. The four twinges are reason enough to rethink this lick of brown you’re foisting upon him, all on their own. Besides, this last anxiety is too sad to countenance, certainly too grim to bear sober.
Lyle’s leaning into your fingers, and he isn’t answering about your birthday, and you realize, to your surprise – surprise that you hadn’t realized it yet, proof perhaps that you’re listening to those twinges – that he’s doing his best to rub his thighs against yours, and not just his thighs. Well, fuck it: if he wants to fuck he’s going to need to dance. By dancing you mean drinking. Fair is fair. You have needs, too. You put aside your twinges and demand that Lyle answer, that he tells you when your birthday is.
“You know I don’t remember that,” he says.
“What?” you shout, as if the band’s drowned him out.
“You always yell at me that I can’t ever remember your birthday!” he yells, leaning over to your ear, which lets him line his thighs up with yours, press his crotch against that delicious bone at the bottom of your abdomen.
“What?” you shout again, your hand flat on his chest, his chest nearly on yours, your arm with the shot looped around his neck to bring the little glass alongside his far cheek.
“I don’t know!” Lyle shouts.
“Right,” you say, suppressing a question of whether you’ve ever seen him sober, not just him sober to be seen, but you sober seeing him. You take a step back from all of his dizzying heat. Nietzsche would authorize your will to not equivocate in pursuit of desire. You know this. Wittgenstein would instruct you to trust your judgment, to trust that your judgment is shared. You say, “That’s why you don’t know it’s today, Lyle. Today is my birthday.”
“Hannah!” he pleads. “Stop. You know it’s not your birthday. Your birthday’s like in the fall.”
“One shot,” you say. “It’ll be fine. Here. Drink it.”
“I can’t,” he says, and he’s so plaintive, now. But there’s no way you’re getting through a whole Wilco concert sober. There’s no way you’re hooking up with Lyle sober. And, there is no way that you’re not going to hook up with Lyle, not after he had you drive down to Colorado Springs for your spring break. And, fuck it, you need this, you need this break, a reprieve from grading, and from cramming theory for your qualifiers, and from the relentless impoverishment of living off your teaching fellows’ stipend, not to mention the impoverishment of living in fucking Fort Collins, and Lyle is guaranteed to fall off the wagon sooner or later, probably tomorrow, if not tonight, and the things you’ve done for him, because of him, with him, to him.
Fuck him. You deserve this. You deserve to not have Lyle choose to have his one attempt at sobriety of the whole goddamn year, of his whole fucking besotted life, be your spring break visit to see him. You steel your resolve, though the phrase, “steel your resolve,” very nearly makes you giggle, and lose it.
“Here,” you say, and clutch his chest hair into your fist, hard; and tug, hard. He shudders. He gasps. You don’t even bother to hold the shot out. He’s weak.
“But don’t you need a shot, too?” Lyle whimpers.
“I’ve already had mine,” you say, you lie, though maybe you do need one. “Here.”
“Share?” he squeaks.
As if, you think. You snicker. As if Lyle could limit himself to half of a shot. This thought is finally dark enough for you to quit pushing. You would, you would quit pushing and you would accept the sad loneliness of an awkward few hours standing soberly next to a quelled version of the man you’ve always reviled yourself reveling in, post-rowdiness. You would quit pushing but for that you’ve already succeeded. It’s too late. Lyle tenders the brown from your hand, and he tosses his head back as he upends the little glass, and he shouts, “Whooweeee!” And you feel a little bit of yourself begin to die. And when he shouts, “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” and slaps his thigh, that little bit of yourself does die.
Then in a magic localized to Lyle, there’s a girl with a platter of shots, anachronistic here, if you can so misuse the word, the only shot girl you’ve seen all night, and with her inexplicable appearance the rigor mortis from that dead bit of you deploys chill tendrils throughout your body.
Lyle takes a plastic glass in each hand, downs them, one after the other, in an exaggerated extruded lip kind of way. He emerges, kiltered, big eyed, and grasps both your shoulders. “Thank you, Hannah,” he says with the earnest intensity of the recently saved. He does two more shots, same style, clearly doesn’t even consider including you in the shots. “Really, Hannah,” he says. “What a relief.”
It’s a strange feeling, not easily described, the feeling of a little bit of yourself dying: It starts as static encircling your left nipple, and the static pulls in and down towards your right hip, which depresses your whole posture, and that steals a spark of wakefulness from your mood, your poise, your eyes…or so you imagine, you can’t see your eyes to know whether they glow, but you feel like it’s true that they dim. And, then that little piece of you is dead. It’s gone, absent. You’d never even know it had been there except that now, when you look at Lyle, whose cheeks are red, whose hair is tossed free and wild, who is fucking fire, now, when you look at him, you no longer feel any need to make him, and you no longer feel worthy of being entitled to make him, but you do know that even if somebody else, likely himself, was always going to make him slip, ultimately, it was you who felled him from his wagon.
You’re no longer at all aroused.
You no longer feel like drinking.
You snicker bitterly at your desire to be homeward bound to where Kristeva’s theorization of the abject lies silently waiting.
But, you’re going to drink a lot more, and quickly, and soon, and you’re going to fuck him, or, at least, the two of you will try, no promises about performance, not after what the two of you are going to drink, what Lyle is going to drink, drink and maybe snort. Probably snort. Snort so as to drink more and longer, an enhanced performance that will not translate to your frenetic and frantic attempts, later on. You’ve committed, now, and you’d like to believe that at least the part of you that commits hasn’t quite died yet.
Anyway, there’s no easy way out of it, and all of this will go down a lot better with a lot more shots.
Jacob Paul is the author of the novels, Last Tower to Heaven (C&R Press, 2019), A Song of Ilan (2015) and Sarah/Sara (2010). His most recent performance-based collaboration was showcased at LadyFest CLT. He currently teaches creative writing at High Point University. More at www.jacobgpaul.com