I’d only been single a few weeks when I found myself explaining the concept of Attachment Theory to a stripper named Lola in the private booth of a club called The Butt Factory. “The thing is, hardly anybody gets their needs met as children,” I said, refilling my champagne flute. “So as adults, we lash out at our partners and say all kinds of nasty shit we don’t really mean. What we should be saying is, I love you and I want to be close to you right now, but I’m scared. That’s how you make a relationship work.” I went to top off Lola’s glass, but it was still full. She’d only taken one or two birdlike sips. “I guess that’s my problem. I can’t do it. I open my mouth to say, I love you, but it comes out as, I don’t want to clean the litter box, you crazy witch.”
Lola nodded, but she wasn’t listening. Her arms were folded protectively over her breasts. She had a sweatshirt draped over her legs. She was shivering.
I went on with my lecture, but after a few minutes Lola interrupted me. “Your session’s almost over. Should I take my panties off or do you want me to leave them on?”
I didn’t know how to answer that, so I said, “Take them off, I guess. I don’t care. Whatever.”
Lola stood up and launched into a series of mechanical hip thrusts, slowly removing her underwear. I tried to look excited, but I couldn’t help it. I burst into tears.
Lola got mad. I guess that wasn’t the reaction she was looking for. She opened a secret compartment in the wall and pressed a red button.
A few seconds later, a 370-pound black man named Gravedigger appeared, brandishing fists the size of volleyballs. “What seems to be the problem?”
“He got a little handsy earlier,” said Lola. “But mostly he’s a crier. Try not to break too many of his bones.”
“A crier, huh?” said Gravedigger, yanking me out of the booth. As he dragged me toward the exit, he explained what a rare privilege it was to be in the company of a woman like Lola. “When a beautiful woman dances for a piece of shit like you, your job is to watch and say thank you and tell her how pretty she is. You don’t cry like your dog just died.”
I tried to protest that my lap dance wasn’t technically over until Lola and I finished our bottle of champagne, but Gravedigger hadn’t received any formal customer service training; he rammed my head into three different door jams, then tossed me into an alleyway.
I was in a lot of pain, so I decided to stay on the ground for a while. It was sort of pleasant. A soft rain fell from the sky. I watched those tiny droplets fall through the yellow glow of a security light and wondered if any part of me was broken. Then I realized pretty much all of me was broken and wouldn’t get any better, and that’s why people have to die one day, to make room for a less fucked up generation.
Eventually I gained the ability to sit up and took stock of my surroundings. Mostly it was just me and a bunch of garbage.
Then I noticed I had a companion. A rat. He was trying to use a piece of cardboard as an umbrella. He had a slight cough—kak, kak.
I felt incredible pity for that rat. I wanted to take him home with me and rehabilitate him with expensive cheeses from New Seasons, but when I reached down to give him a gentle pat on the head, he bit me.
“Dang,” I said, sucking the blood from my finger.
I started to feel dizzy.
Did rats have tetanus or was that just nails?
I leaned over to look at my reflection in a puddle and threw up in it. A few seconds later my startled face gazed back at me in a swamp of half-digested pizza.
The trouble started when my girlfriend Emily informed me that she’d inseminated herself with a turkey baster full of her gay friend Todd’s semen. She communicated this to me in an e-mail. The subject of the e-mail was, “Surprise!!!” The e-mail was 10,000 words long, the approximate length at which a short story becomes a novella. In it, she made a detailed list of my shortcomings. Each shortcoming had its own Roman numeral and accompanying essay. My most serious shortcoming, according to Emily (Roman numeral I), was my inability to commit to anything. As evidence, she listed my wishy-washy feelings re: marriage and children. “I’m 36,” she wrote. “My uterus is like the carriage from Cinderella. Any day it’s going to turn back into a pumpkin.”
I was troubled by her choice of metaphor. Was she, in this scenario, Cinderella? And if so, who was the prince, me or Todd? And the turkey baster—was that supposed to be the slipper?
She dedicated the last 1000 words of the e-mail to an unnecessarily graphic description of her recent basting, which she declared a huge success. There were two photo attachments that I refused to open: preparations.jpg (1.4 MB) and insemination-day.jpg (1.2 MB).
Emily and I had been dating for seven years. Plenty of time, I thought, to bring her around to my point of view on the topics of matrimony and procreation: namely, that marriage was an archaic form of STD prevention, and that babies were freakish piglets with grabby pink spider hands. But apparently that whole time Emily had been holding out hope that I’d come around to her point of view, that healthy, normal people got married and had kids and lived happily ever after.
Five o’clock arrived. I got into my car and was about to drive home from work when it occurred to me that I didn’t live anywhere. In my shock, trying to picture Emily’s pretty vagina pierced by a plastic Thanksgiving utensil, I’d nearly overlooked the ostensible purpose of her e-mail, which was to inform me that all of my belongings were in a storage unit on NE Sandy Boulevard and I wasn’t welcome home.
I found a cheap two-bedroom apartment in a dilapidated area of Portland east of 82nd Avenue that turned out to be ground zero for a raging gang war. Apparently some 14-year-old kid called another 14-year-old kid a “fag” in front of his girlfriend. For revenge, the other kid decided to systematically murder the name-caller, all of his friends, and anyone stupid enough to rent a $400/month apartment in the general vicinity of his turf.
Every night bullets whistled through the muggy air outside my bedroom window. Their ethereal purr conjured the joyous flight path of a hummingbird minus the serenity. Tires zipped on asphalt, and the aggressive engine roar of the getaway car made me trembly and panic-stricken. I hardly slept, and when I did, I had the warmongering dreams of an Iraqi soldier traipsing through the rubble-covered streets of Fallujah.
I needed somewhere to escape to. Somewhere safe. I thought of Emily’s bed and her pretty round bottom and the warm, tingly feeling of being inside of her vagina, but the more I thought about it, the more unpleasant it sounded. Even if I was able to convince her to make love to me one last time strictly for my personal safety, I’d also be inadvertently making love to a tiny version of Todd, fiendishly thrusting my penis against the walls of his prenatal float tank.
One night, after consuming what amounted to half a bottle of Old Crow, I had a moment of clarity in which I realized that the safest place on earth is a strip club. What man in his right mind would shoot up a room full of beautiful naked women? It was like having a force field made of thongs and boob jobs.
I frequented several, but eventually gravitated toward one or two on the fringes of Portland where the dancers were older and less attractive, and therefore had fewer scruples about listening to a grown man weep and ask for spiritual advice. I brought stacks of bills; as long as I kept that green river flowing toward them, they kept moving for me, making kissy faces, asking questions, until my wallet was empty and they went off to find another broken soul.
The rear door to the strip club opened, and Gravedigger stepped outside. He cracked opened a Red Bull and meditatively puffed on an e-cigarette. It was a full minute before he noticed me shivering next to the dumpster. “What the mother? Didn’t I send your weepy ass home?”
“I was attacked by a rat,” I explained.
“For real? Lemme see.” He inspected my wound. “Damn, that li’l fucker chomped you. We better clean that shit up, dawg. Get some Neosporin on it.”
He helped me to my feet and led me down a hallway into a changing area in the back of the club.
Lola was sitting on a vinyl sofa chair rubbing some kind of ointment onto her feet. “What’s he doing here? Didn’t you toss that crybaby into the alley?”
“There was another rat attack,” said Gravedigger. “I’ve gotta start tossing the creeps out the front. There’s some thug-ass rodents back there.”
He opened a closet, produced a first aid kit, and laid its contents out on a table: hydrogen peroxide, cotton balls, Neosporin, gauze, and a tiny pair of scissors.
“Aight,” he said. “Let’s do this.”
My champagne buzz was wearing off. I started to worry. I wasn’t sure how Gravedigger planned on using the scissors. Also, it occurred to me that whatever he was planning to do to my finger should probably be done in an environment more sterile than a stripper lounge.
Lola came over to watch. “Are you nervous?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Should I be?”
“Nah. Gravedigger’s a pro. Last week he cut off Stacia’s plantar wart with a Swiss Army knife. She healed right up.”
“I’m like House,” said Gravedigger. “You seen that show House? That’s me.”
I sat on a wooden stool. Gravedigger put on a pair of blue latex gloves. Lola pulled up a chair next to the surgery area.
The procedure lasted only a minute. It consisted of Gravedigger cleaning the wound with peroxide, squeezing Neosporin onto a cotton ball, applying it to my finger, then lovingly wrapping it in gauze. When he was finished, he removed his gloves and wiped a film of sweat from his brow.
“You’re healed,” he declared. “I recommend a professional for shots. I don’t keep vaccines at the club. Rats are full of diseases. Ebola, Hep-C… all that shit.”
He took a drag off his e-cigarette. It cast a dull blue light. A citrus scent filled the room.
“You were very brave,” said Lola.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Sorry about getting weird earlier. Crying makes me uncomfortable.”
“Hey,” said Gravedigger from the other side of the room. “Y’all like ‘Skinny Love’?”
“Like what?” I asked.
Gravedigger fiddled with his iPod. A few seconds later the speakers rattled with the nostalgic guitar-strumming introduction to Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love.” Gravedigger shook his huge black head from side to side, moved to rapture by the forest dwelling hipster music.
Lola watched him, smiling. Under the florescent lights I noticed the thick layer of makeup on her face. Concealer. She appeared to have a moderate to severe acne problem. In her terry cloth bathrobe, without a brass pole between her legs, she’d lost all her power over me. But I liked her a good deal more this way. I imagined waking up next to her in a beam of sunlight, the unsexy moment when she leaned over to kiss me with stinky breath and eye boogers.
“Hey, Lola,” I said. “Are you dating anyone right now?”
“I have an on-again off-again thing with this guy Dale,” she said. “But he’s in prison right now.”
“Jesus. For what?”
“I don’t know. Grand larceny? Is that a thing?”
“My my my—my my!” crooned Gravedigger along with the music.
I cleared my throat. “So—um—is there any chance you’d like to, I don’t know, grab a cup of coffee or—”
“You don’t want to date a stripper,” said Lola. “You seem like a nice guy. Go find a normal girl with big tits and a day job.”
“I’m not nice,” I protested. “I’m totally fucked up.”
“No, you’re just sad.”
“That’s true,” I admitted.
“We’re all sad,” said Gravedigger. “It’s the state of the world.”
The song was approaching its crescendo. Somehow—I don’t know it happened—my head plopped sideways and landed in Lola’s lap. Instead of commanding Gravedigger to snap me in half, she stroked my hair. It was incredible. From that warm, soft, 90-degree angle, I saw something that to this day I still consider a miracle. Or if not a miracle, then one of those rare events that rip the rational veneer off the world, revealing its chaotic, bumbling core. Bon Iver hit a lovely high note, and Gravedigger, as if moved by the pain of every jilted ex-lover in the world, started dancing. There was a bright florescent light behind him; it transformed him into a vast shadow. He was both Gravedigger and not-Gravedigger. His movements were human and eternal. From what I could tell, he was pantomiming the birth of the universe.
“Is this really happening?” I asked Lola.
“Gravedigger’s a very special dancer,” she said. “He teaches all the girls here how to move like that. He is our epicenter.”
There’s no way Lola actually said epicenter, but that’s what I heard.
He was certainly the epicenter of something.
Maybe he was God.
Whenever I tell this story, people say, “I don’t believe you. Show me the scar.” Like that ghost white zigzag would prove anything. Besides, even if I wanted to I can’t. The next day, when I unraveled the gauze from my finger, it was totally healed. Not just healed, but like that rat never bit me in the first place.
You’re probably thinking, “He dreamed the whole thing when he was drunk.” Maybe you’re right. How the hell do I know? I was drunk for an entire year. Then I wrapped the hood of my Jetta around a telephone pole and scuttled away from that mess, bleeding from the chin and ear, before they could charge me with a DUI. Now I’ve been sober for six months.
Probably I did dream the damn thing, but who cares? It happened in my mind, which is as good as the truth.
Emily’s baby, Jonah, was born in April. He was nine pounds, six ounces, and beautiful just like his father. For a long time, I avoided Emily, but one day I called her, and instead of threatening me with a restraining order, she asked if I wanted to meet for coffee.
We met at Arbor Lodge on Rosa Parks. Jonah was only a few months old, but he was fat. I’d never seen such a fat baby. He really did look like a piglet.
She asked if I wanted to hold him. I said no, but she thrust the little brat into my arms anyway.
I didn’t know what to do, so I bounced him. He stuck his finger in his mouth and drooled all over me. It was disgusting, but he didn’t know anything yet, so I decided to forgive him.
Emily had been nursing and forgot that her breasts were hanging out. I don’t think she cared about those things anymore. Her nipples were dark brown and big as coasters. Everything about her was earthy and pink.
She said, “Isn’t he adorable?”
“He’s disgusting,” I said, but I went on bouncing him and making faces. That crazy baby laughed like I was the funniest person in the world. Maybe I was. I gobbled up his tiny hands. I chewed on his fingers. He squealed. I put his foot in my mouth, and he made a farting sound. He was so dumb, he was amazing.
One day scientists will figure out how to make babies without men or turkey basters. We’ll be useless, finally, like we pretty much were all along. We’ll have nothing left to do but go into the forest and write songs about women and about fucking up. How we did everything wrong and screwed up our lives, and now our children’s fathers are robots. It will be a better world, and our sad songs will echo through the birch trees.