Saturday, April 14, 2007

Empathy Part Two

There is a couch on the porch. College towns seem to inherit everyone’s old couches, like they just land there, sometimes on the football field or precariously on a roof or in the parking lot of a convenience store, but most of them end up on porches. They are by no means waterproof, but they never smell bad or seem to have a lingering wet. They are inevitably of eighties-design, strange arches and triangles all over, like Nagel paintings. Many were at one time red. Max’s feral porchcouch has a dramatically high back and laughably low armrests. I sit in the center, examining the flight of suicidal moths on the bare lightbulb above me.

Max, in lieu of a gentle touch on my shoulder, waves to me, bending in front of me. “Did you go in at all?” He asks me. I smile at him.

When I entered Max’s house twenty minutes earlier, praying that he had very few friends, all I saw was the back of people’s necks at the door. They were immobile too, wouldn’t listen to “excuse me” or “pardon.” I inhaled and tapped the shoulder of the one who was talking at the door. I felt anxiousness, joy, confusion, all of it slow with the guy’s alcohol, and dropped my hand right away. I touched it again, at least knowing what I was getting into. Slow confusion and disappointment gave way to a slight resentment in the guy’s head. He turned around.

“I’m sorry,” I said, trying not to shake out my hand, “but I need to get through the door. He turned to his side and his friends pushed in closer to each other. I would have to touch him to get through. There was no time to dread it. I plowed in, got past the first group of people, self-righteousness, insecurity, fear, confidence, and plow into the next group. They were dancing, three people rhythmically dry humping in the middle of the living room. The man, mocha-skinned and sweaty, was feeling hope, sadness at something lost, concern for someone, but most of all desire. I got a charge, and felt a swelling in my underpants. I made it past him and simply got more of the same, insecurity, sadness, fear, confidence and desire, desire, desire, none of it my own. There was no path, no simple way to avoid the touch of others. I wanted to scream, searching desperately for Max but drowning in other people. I had to get out and yelled out as loud as I could, “Let me out! Let me out! I’m sorry, but get me the fuck out of here!”

That cleared a path. I ran through it, fighting tears, my own tears, embarrassment in a wash over me like a syrup, and the sex part, now real in my body, though it started with someone else, leading to self-loathing, like I’d been raped.

But now there is the couch and the moths. “I went in a little, yeah,” I say to Max, smiling in case he’d already heard it. He smiles back, friendly, his lips parting for a second as if to blow me a kiss. If he heard about some madwoman screaming to be let out of his living room, he’s being polite about it.

“Let’s take a walk,” he says, and holds his hand out for me. I reach for it, then we both remember at once and let them drop.

Max and walk slowly, closer than we did on campus. I ask him about the house (his older brother got their fraternity disbanded and sold it to his friends at a discount, only to coincidentally need a roommate at the same time Max needed a place to live), the graffiti site (he plans to expand on it, into handwriting analysis of the vice-presidents, but is taking a break for school), where he’s from (city kid, went to Catholic school even though his parents are Baptist), and what all he wants to do with his life (he just got finished reading Kerouac and was enthralled with it for a while, thought about working as a line cook across the country, he read Kerouac’s biography and decided he was a free-loading asshole, he’s not sure what he’s going to do now). I don’t tell him much about me and he doesn’t ask much. That’s fine. I don’t want to get into the seven stages of accepting Sarah’s uniqueness yet. He seems to take it at face value.

“Max?” I ask him, though I’m so scared my stomach is turning. “I want you to do something for me, okay?”

He stops and looks at me. While we walked I could feel him get closer to me. Right now, he’s right in front of me. Now or never.


“Could you try to kiss me?”

Try to kiss you?”

“I’ve never let anyone do it.”

“I’m either going to kiss you or I’m not.” He looks at my lips. He got all shy on the word “kiss.”

I bite my top lip and inhale. “Kiss me,” I say, absolutely shaking. “Please.”

He blinks a couple of times and leans in. I close my eyes. His lips touch mine and it’s all there, all of it, synched, mine and his. Sex, affection, fear, sedition. It’s the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me. He lets up and goes back to his heels.

“How was that?” he asks, genuinely worried.

“That was the scariest thing I’ve ever done.”

He turns his head suspiciously. He doesn’t believe me. And I haven’t even told him yet.

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