Robert Glück

Hidden in the Open

      A doctor named Janet showed me to a tiny examining room: table, desk, sink. We talked and she left. I had never noticed the Women’s Clinic behind its single door on a busy stretch of Castro. I sat a minute and looked out the window to the opposite roof where two cats sunned, so big and heavy I thought at first they were dogs.
      I’d brought some porn, lubricant, a vibrator, and the idea that if I massaged my prostate with the vibrator, I could really empty my testicles, flushing out more sperm. Is that medically sound? The amount of sperm I could produce was an issue. I’d never thought much about my testicles and now these tender organs were the center of a certain kind of attention. I’d switched to boxer shorts to let them hang so sperm would not be killed by my body heat. I had not had an orgasm in forty-eight hours, time to build up supplies, and yet not long enough to lose any from old age. I became aware of my balls and the balls of men I knew and saw—factories of reproduction, so apparent and well known, hidden in the open. The baby—that enormous fact in the lives of the two mothers and myself—would replace the biological mechanics of its birth with a sense of inevitability. All of civilization tries to control and hide the knowledge that I grew from dad’s spermatozoon and mom’s egg. She was born with enough to populate a city; his testicles held YYY and etc. These cells of reproduction might have been Hebrew letters, but I call their random conjunction nonnarrative.
      I locked the door of the little gray room and took my clothes off. My body was the only messy object in sight. I heard footsteps and chatting; they knew I was naked and feeling sexual pleasure so I was hidden in the open. I climbed onto my knees on the examining table. It was covered with paper from a roll. I greased the vibrator, pushed it into me, and sat down on it. I raised my body and the small hollow missile of beige plastic became myself sliding out; I pushed it back. That felt okay, though it was never entirely comfortable. The bottom half was ribbed—it was designed for clitoral excitation. The batteries ran down in 1977. In 1982 I replaced them but still couldn’t get it to run. In 1975 I used to hear it through the wall, humming like a model airplane in and out of Susie’s hangar. She stayed with Ed and me after leaving her husband, who happened to be my cousin. At my house she had a breakdown and wrote a novel.
      In 1976, Susie abandoned her vibrator and moved in with her boyfriend. In 1991, I rose and sank on it. Nerve endings enjoyed the attention. Earlier, while checking my prostate, a doctor at the clinic apologized for the discomfort and I felt I asserted my gay identity by saying, No, no, it feels great. I was jacking off and looking at the ass of a man I’d found in a stack of porn in a cupboard. He lay on his stomach on blankets. His ass was a heavenly destination inside me and he did not look at the viewer, which I prefer. But inside me I felt a separation—I realized it was not emotional. The two halves of the vibrator had come apart. The ribbed bottom popped out, but the smooth top was stuck. I lost my erection and the image lost its command. Suddenly it was understood and dispatched, a boy with a butt. The vibrator was probably worn out by the time Susie left it. She’d had a sexual awakening so compelling that all my friends started fucking in every combination. Susie is my life’s genius; my writing and the way I talk and fuck work out the permutations of a scrap of her sensibility that I adopted, like a scholar spending his life on Sappho’s fragments.
      Once Susie phoned a temple to find the spelling of the word menorah and she got the shamas, the janitor, who asked her to describe herself: a lanky Russian blonde with a long nose, small breasts and blue eyes. She asked him the same question. “Really Jewish.” She replied, “That’s always been good enough in the past,” and invited him over to fuck. He really did look Jewish. The vibrator was still lodged in my ass. For an excruciating moment I wondered if I would have to call for help. In my nakedness I felt like a dog; as a dog acts with its whole body I spread my ass and concentrated and finally eased it out. The self has already passed through the naturalistic phase, with the assumptions hidden in the open about what that self would be. Still, I was shocked to see a bright fleck of shit on the vibrator, as though shit came from my body. I’d lost track of that association.
      Only after I came out as a gay man did I have good sex with women. Susie’s orgasms in my bed seemed so intelligent. She was a genius—she taught me sex could be chaotic and aware at the same time. Where did she acquire that knowledge? I became her way of being, her offhand boldness, and then I taught that way of being to other people.
      I was having a hard time coming. My body was alert, but its sensations seemed parsed out, isolated from each other—heated face, wash of pleasure over thighs and belly, hard cock, prostate emitting signals. The moment did not have enough pressure. Coughs in the hallway, a druggy sense of masturbating, an inappropriate length of time in the little room, and being inappropriate in general. I considered the magazines I’d brought. I found them one chilly night in 1986 while walking back from BART after dinner with Judy Grahn.
      I turned onto Dolores and saw a color photo of a man’s rosy butt mashed into the cold street, a jolt of heart-stopping beauty; of invitation and chill, of happiness wildly out of context. I spotted the magazine it came from curled in the gutter. Then I saw another magazine. Passing cars were ripping them apart, filling up Dolores with the most exquisite gestures—a naked man climbs into his pants, another stands among vines with his hands clasped. There were more magazines. Strips of bright yellow frame a black-and-white of a boy with downcast eyes, his long lashes on his cheeks, his hand guiding a cock to his mouth, his little finger indenting the scrotum, the image ground into the street and creased. Two blond boys play plumber; the plumber’s cock accidentally drops out of his shorts. A ripped page, what’s left of a torso jumps out of water, the splash and cock midair. A Chicano boy pulls off his T-shirt floating across the grass. A dewy cock and slices of tomato, cucumber, sprigs of parsley, and black olives make a composed salad. A sweating slave tied up all chiaroscuro arches backwards into classical night. The petulant blonds in endless refigurings. Male perfection distorted and illuminated by pleasure, looking at itself and the viewer, heated and open in every combination on the chilly street at one A.M. I picked up every magazine I could find over the two blocks. The pages still have the texture of Dolores pressed into them. I’m ashamed I was so greedy. If I’d let the magazines be ripped apart by the cars, the street would have overflown with naked men in heat. But hidden treasure is a dream of mine and here was hidden treasure in the open. It resumed its secret existence.
      The Women’s Clinic’s pile of pornography also displayed balls and cocks and cunts and breasts in endlessly recombinant acts. The existence of fucking is too simple for language to explain. I wonder about the person who threw the magazines unto Dolores. Was he weeding his collection? Renouncing porn? Was it a marriage ceremony, a rite of celibacy, a memorial service by his friends?
      I’d been looking forward to the clinic’s straight porn. A few weeks ago I saw a woman splayed across a bed, her knees raised, legs turned out so her cunt was isolated and a standing man’s cock entered it. Their positions emphasized the opposites, penetrator and penetrated. The clinic’s porn was annoying, without men or any interaction, just smiling women bright with expectation, miming intimacy, as opposed to the sullen men and boys of the porn I’d brought. The illusion of intimacy versus the illusion of alienation, of scorn overcome and stripped. The clinic’s gay porn showed boys fucking without condoms and that surprised me.
      I couldn’t use the magazines to pressure the moment. Instead I thought about my ex, how his face distended after we’d had sex for hours. His own orgasm was remote and he chased it down with a determined ugliness that made me feel awe. I was sweating by now, and I squeezed my ass to get my prostate into the act. The magazines’ distant boys were too familiar and the room and my body too distant, so I summoned the human incarnation of distance that had so aroused me to preside over this orgasm. I heard laughter outside the door and a woman calling, “Janet, Janet.” I wanted both to have the orgasm and to muffle the spasms as though they were screams. That pulled the combination of triggers to whatever mechanism, and I distended my face like my ex’s For my own benefit—the jolt of pleasure made me go ugh! as though it hit me in the belly.
      So I come: blip blip. Only two blips into the cup and it’s nothing—-my prostate massage did not help at all. It’s half the normal amount. Come back, I say—to who? The bandwagon of the generations pulls out. I look at my testicles with hostility. I start jacking off hopelessly—standing up and sweating—watching the sperm in the cup that is probably dying by the thousands. People move around; a door slams. The sperm is separating into a thick plug and some watery milk. I can almost come again because the previous orgasm was so inadequate. I want to make a wild cry—MY SPERM IS DYING!—as though calling after them in the distance. There aren’t enough to look at, let alone freeze. I see each spermatozoon freezing in the bosom of nonnarration.
      I imagine they are thinking of me as a light they forgot to turn off. I clean up. I see that my greasy butt made splotches on the paper of the examining table, and I’m reminded of the polka dots Lily left all over the house when she was in heat. Lily’s cunt was so swollen and engorged we called it her bran muffin. I try to explain to Janet about my sperm and she says blah-blah-blah and I know she’s going to say that. It’s odd to feel twinges and residual shocks of pleasure as I talk to her in the hallway. We say goodbye. We shake and our faces fall as we register in the same instant that my hand is sticky.


The Early Worm

      I know for sure when the actual thief enters. I’m still asleep, but there’s no mistaking the rattling lock, the dash of cold air on my lips and forehead. A scraping and a clicking—what’s that? When I hear footsteps in the hall a thin wave weakens me. But I’m already collapsed, far back in Sally’s apartment, with my ankles crossed and my head wedged against her wooden headboard. After looking at something painful I close my eyes; now that small nightfall extends into a second kind of night. I don’t want to be lying down; I ease into a sitting position, open my mouth wide so my thick breath can pass in silence. The back of my throat cools with each breath. The knot of tension in my back turns out to be my glasses, I was sleeping on them.
      I can’t hide myself without making noise. Besides, I’m wearing only a T-shirt. I hear the scraping again, but now the air seems jammed—the boom and groan of cars, thudding heart, purr of shuffling cards, my breath, a siren, the low drone and high frosty whine of room air. I hold my hands up as though conducting this orchestra.
      So now I must relate to someone—how can I do that? I find my glasses to defend myself with sight but there is nothing to see. My glasses seem pathetic, their owner already dead. The lump of fear in my throat teaches me how to speak. I call out, “Who’s there?” My voice is so shocking that I realize the intruder could have a simple explanation, so I repeat the question.
      Something like my will supports this experience in order to keep it from contracting into nothing. That is, contact with others becomes remote and threadbare, always has. Always I begin to live in daydreams, the gist of these dreams is that contact is a prize given to some, withheld from others. It’s a psychological problem, or a religious one—you could say evil holds my family in its clutches, if you call evil the lack of relation to the world’s taking place.
      After a silence that seems surprised, a deep, silvery voice replies, “Your father told me to stop by.” It’s a bizarre statement. I inform myself, the man in the hall says my father sent him.
      My father is, what, easy to guess, sleeping in his recliner in front of M*A*S*H reruns and appalling newsbreaks and special reports—Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated, Khmer Rouge seizes power, Dresden is firebombed, China invades Tibet. His swollen legs are raised. He’s rather deaf so shocking blasts of laugh track are fired at the motionless old man in a white terry-cloth robe tinted blue by the tube. The century is done with him. The scene is almost Egyptian in its rigid symmetry and lack of substance.
      But I’m not in my home in San Francisco, I’m staying at Sally’s, so probably the intruder does not even mean my father, and Sally’s died in a minute three years ago of a brain aneurysm. I want to correct the thief, I want to say, “No, Ed sent you,” since the thief claims to come from the dead.
      The reflected light—his flashlight. The scraping sounds—a frame lifted from the wall. The clicks—wires being cut. I know what that is: a large framed photo of an upside-down pawn. The thief has offered me a lie to see us through a violent moment. I feel a jolt of passionate interest; we need a fiction.
      “This is mine,” he says, as though I can see what he’s holding. My mind drifts through my ears, I try to read his voice. He sounds “college educated” about his trade, like an unoppressed prostitute who calls his business sex work. I take his side. After all, they could be his in some way I have yet to understand. It’s my job to continue his story in order to show respect for life.
      “Did my father send a message?”
      “Nothing,” he says, suddenly cautious, “nothing at all.”
      My father has nothing to tell me, but my conversation with the thief seems to call my father from the dead. Since my dad is alive, I wish this lifesaving technique were applied to Ed. Ed would have sent a message.
      “And the key?” Exalted communication, it opens a starlit emptiness I enter to be recognized. He starts to whistle—whistling while he works. A sharp buzz and the smell of sawdust. I’m confident the question of killing me is behind us—what’s left? He is depriving Sally of certain important choices she has made. I’m sorry that I can’t send the thief to my mother to make her feel less lonely. If I organize myself around a false premise, does that mean other premises are true?
      “Oh yes, your dad gave me the key.” I hear a heavy object slide against the wall, the far wall, so that would be the painting on OSB of a weightless spaceman in his suit—beyond the spaceman a naked pin-up rotates in his mind or ours. Sharp expressive lines skid across slick deserted worlds. I’m surprised to feel a welling-up of love, because in the thief’s lie I find more contact with my dad than I can remember having. In space, no one can hear you make comparisons. It’s a social problem or a linguistic one.

      My dad expects Wall Street to collapse and the Armenians to be slaughtered. If he did send the thief, what lie is being upheld? I beam from one plot level down to another, bearing my desire as though intensity were just a trick of perspective. Even as I head into this fantasy I’m tired of it. I’m at the limit, naked as one at the limit of this story. My feet hurt as though I’ve been walking on cracked bones. I smell peanut butter and the aroma leads me to a plastic bag of cookies that Sally left on the nightstand. Taking a bite, I mash toasty brittleness into Sweet salty goo. I’m not afraid, but the room is and the building—what—a sort of negative space of feeling. The air fizzes, lightly carbonated.
      “What time is it?” I ask, urgent to know.
      “Four-twenty,” he replies.
      “Well, the early bird catches the worm,” I observe.
      “And the early worm gets caught by the bird!” His beam in my eyes makes me teary. Why not confect an escape into the normal, because feeling pleasure normalizes even this creeping strangeness—the vaporous skirt a ghost trails above the ground—a failure of belief so deep it becomes its own mysticism, detaching electron from nucleus and dissolving every kind of relation.
      Pleasure makes everything normal. If I write the word pleasure I must have sex on paper, because this is pornography’s car burglar with his spidery touch and baggy pants. The mattress dips, he’s sitting on the edge, he doesn’t weigh much. Now he’s naked and deathy as a garden god.
      “Best if you don’t see my face,” he advises, switching off the beam. He muses for a minute on his own words, then slides his hand along my thigh. Blood streams beneath my skin. He believes in the excitement he causes there. I palpate my thigh, probing the flesh he touched. He adds, “You’re a handsome man.”
      Since it’s pitch-black, this strikes me as a pure compliment. “Handsome, yes,” I drawl. “Next time you should bring your camera.”
      “You’re touchy! It’s the sweet ones who’re grouchy at home.”
      A pressure in my chest could be lust. I would not have sex with just anyone, but as I think this I’m already shedding the blanket. The distance between untouched skin and touched skin is the unimaginable leap; the rest speeds by without transition. He has a long torso, slender and childish. He has a scar on his ass—a bite taken out of it. If I steal some flesh, will my face always lift and tilt as though in darkness? The thief’s paintings and photographs lean against the front door. “And the box with the star chart and wine glass?”
      “The Cornell?” he squeaks. “Totally awesome-blage!
      I’m in a woman’s bed, my scent is light, floral. What phylogenic stage does he come from with his skinny arms and his sweet and salty flavor? I’m not in my own home, but I offer some hospitality.
      That is, I welcome his spidery touch, narrow chest; his breath smells like steaming pavement after hot rain. What to do with his cock, blunt and knobby as a Bavarian nutcracker? He pushes it into me like newsbreaks and special reports: Two hundred thousand perish. His voice is reedy and his limbs are fragile and pliant as a tadpole’s—he’s dividing into the rigid and the weak. He’s a child, weightless, his movements tentative, his head lolling on my chest, while a heavy weight drags me deep into the mattress. A pot of water set on a fire never gets colder, yet I’m freezing up—it’s the reverse of a natural process. When I’m certain he’s feeling pleasure, I let bits of circumstance slip out: “This is not my apartment.” “My dad lives in Escondido.” “The art is insured.” By then it’s too late for these airy facts to convince either of us or to redefine the calamity. Thanks, Dad, I think, communication at long last.
      I blaze for a moment and subside. The perilous century turns away in the night and the latch clicks shut. My skin touches strange pillows and blankets, and the feeling of being alive displays itself like a ghost in the darkness.

Robert Glück is the author of nine books of poetry and fiction, including the two novels, Margery Kempe (1994) and Jack the Modernist (1995), a book of poems and short prose, Reader (1989), and a collection of stories, Denny Smith (2004). He lives in San Francisco and teaches at San Francisco State University, where he is an editor of the online journal Narrativity. In 2005, Coach House Press published Biting the Error: Writers on Narrative, an anthology edited by Glück, Camille Roy, Mary Berger and Gail Scott.