One spring day in 2004, Carlo and I were rushing up Eighth Avenue, heading for the movie theater on 23rd to see the new Almodóvar flick. We had heard that the hot, young Mexican actor we liked was naked in a few scenes. Carlo was expounding on orgasms, his favorite subject. He was a connoisseur of orgasms, most of which, he would be the first to tell you, were self-administered. He had a whole thesaurus of words to describe the various intensities, durations, emotions, smells, viscosities, rhythms and contractions of his climaxes. He was like an Eskimo talking about snow, or a sommelier discussing Côte-du-Rhône. In fact, we all called him The Cummelier.
“You ever come so hard you passed out?” he asked me as we crossed 20th St.
“That would be cool, but no,” I said. “What time is the movie?”
“It would be supercool, Right? You know the way people pass out from pain? This would be passing out from pleasure!”
“And this has never happened to you?”
“I’ve come close, no pun intended. But somehow I always manage to stay conscious.”
“Quelle dommage! Pauvre Monsieur le Cummelier!”
“Don’t joke! What else do I have going on?”
He had a point. He had been unemployed for almost a year and was supporting himself by proofreading for large law firms in glass boxes on Sixth Avenue. He usually worked the late shift, which included a car ride home at dawn. I didn’t believe the stories he told about sucking off the drivers, but he enjoyed telling them so much I let them go unchallenged.
We turned right on 23rd Street and were suddenly confronted with a mass of people waiting to get into the multiplex. Apparently, every gay boy in Chelsea liked Almodóvar.
“Not good,” groaned Carlo. “What do you want to do?”
“Let’s get a drink. I don’t think I have the attention span for a movie anyway.”
Carlo looked longingly at the posters. “Let’s try again later in the week. I really want to see this. I need some fresh fantasy material.”
“Why don’t you go on a date?” I asked.
“I’m self-sufficient. Self-contained. I lack for nothing.”
“You contain multitudes.”
“Your ass contains multitudes.”
“Ouch!” We both cracked up.
I was good at playing verbal games but I was really pretty inexperienced for a Chelsea gay. I figured as long as I could talk the talk nobody would know how semi-virginal I was. Carlo knew, but I had no reason to hide from him. And he hid nothing from me.
We turned onto a side street and entered Oblivion, the bar we’d been calling home for the ten years since it opened. Oblivion consisted of a long, dark front room with a bar and a wider, second room with a small stage, pool table, and several deep-cushioned couches, into which couples sank and made out languidly. Both rooms were painted black, and the dim lighting and midcentury modern furniture made the place feel like a half-remembered dream of childhood.
Nodding to Tom, the muscled bartender, we took our regular seats at the bar. A row of men sat alongside us, staring at their cell phones as if willing them to ring. Once in a while a phone lying on the bar would flash red or green like a rare tropical fish, and its owner would grab it up eagerly.
“Let me tell you a story,” said The Cummelier, putting his hand on mine and fixing me with a stare.
“You know I’m seriously into phone sex, right? Last night I was on the line with this guy who wanted me to be Superman. I mean, he was like, ‘Now you’re taking off your boots. Now you’re taking off your cape and putting it on the back of the chair.’ He wanted to run his hands over the ‘S’ on my chest… You get the idea. I was pretty turned on and was just about to come, when – you’re gonna think I’m crazy, Gabe, but I swear this is true -- I saw my mother floating above me, just below the ceiling.”
I didn’t say anything and took a sip of my whiskey.
“It was definitely my mother,” Carlo continued. “She was wearing the blue housedress she always wore and her hair was thin and wispy, the way it was before she died. I’ll tell you, nothing kills an erection like seeing your dead mother floating over your bed!”
“It’s like kryptonite,” I offered.
“Fuck you, dude. Try to be more sensitive.”
“She was looking at me, Gabe, and she looked so sad.”
“Weren’t you embarrassed that she caught you jerking off?”
“She wouldn’t have minded. I was raised on Dr. Spock. But I wasn’t jerking off, I was having phone sex. There was another person involved, even if he wasn’t physically in the room with me.”
“No, seriously, this is important, Gabe. When I have phone sex with somebody it’s very intimate, very close. It’s like we’re writing a story together. It’s like we’re co-authoring a piece of erotic fiction. Or maybe it’s more like jazz because we both have to improvise based on what the other is doing.” He raised his voice. “It’s not a solo act. It’s a meeting of the minds, and a meeting of bodies – even if we’re imaginary bodies.”
“So who do you say you are? How do you describe yourself? You can be anyone, right?”
“Yeah, that’s one of the things I love about it. If the guy sounds hot and he wants me to be tall, I’m tall. If he wants me to be hairy, I’m hairy. Once a guy told me he only had one arm and I figured it probably wasn’t true but it was his fantasy so I played along and started rubbing my dick on his stump. I mean I said I was rubbing my dick on his stump.”
“And your mother…”
“Jeez, yeah… so my mother was floating there and turning and turning slowly like one of those rotisserie chickens. Kinda graceful but creepy. And then she just passed through the wall and was gone. Right through my Nina Simone poster.”
I took another sip of my drink and asked, “So what do you make of it?”
What is this place? There’s Carlo. What is he doing? He was always such a sexual boy, playing with himself in front of the TV. His father wanted me to stop it but all the books said it was natural, so I let it go without saying anything. How his father and I used to fight about that! “Stupid woman!” he’d yell at me.
He looks different close up. Older. But of course he is. I’ve been looking at him from such a distance. When did his hair turn gray? I wonder what he was thinking about, what his fantasies were, so young, age six, maybe, pulling on that little penis. And how old is he now? Forty, fifty? Gray hair. He’s put on a little weight, but he’s still a good-looking boy. He looks happy. Well, he looks like he’s having fun, anyway. Who can say what’s happy.
Was Sidney right? Was I a stupid woman? I was naïve, I know. I’d go out to lunch every day with the other girls from Bamberger’s and they’d have lots of drinks and I didn’t drink at all, but when the check came we divided it up evenly. I resented it, but I never said anything. And they’d go back to their counters and sell hats and gloves and scarves and earn their commissions and make loads of money at Christmas, but I went upstairs to the office, where I was a secretary, and I never got any commission, not even a bonus.
We named him Carl after my father, but he liked “Carlo.” I told him stories about my father – how he would put on his only suit and take the bus into the city from Newark just to stand at the back of the Met. Standing room was cheap then, but my mother still got angry, missing having him home for the afternoon. Carl started to like opera when he was eight or so. He’d play his record of Anna Moffo singing Butterfly and I’d sit on the couch and cry, thinking about my father. After listening to all that Italian, Carl announced one day he wanted to be called Carlo. Sidney wouldn’t do it. He called him Carl until the day he died.
I made one big mistake: I said, “Carlo, you’re like me – you don’t need anybody.” And he said, “I’m like you, Mommy.”
He’s like me in another way, too: He likes the sound of the human voice.
My father always had the radio on and he loved all kinds of music, not just opera. One night he was listening to Frank Sinatra and I said “He doesn’t have much of a voice, does he, Daddy?” And he answered, “No, he’s good, he’s got a nice little tenor.”
I walked into the bar in the late afternoon and saw Carlo sitting there. He smiled and held up three fingers; this meant that he had already had three orgasms today. I held up one finger, took a seat next to him and squeezed his shoulder. He kept dabbing at his left eye with a napkin.
“I shot in my eye,” he explained.
“Nice. What are you drinking?”
“A cosmo. Just one tonight. OK, two.”
I felt my beeper vibrate so I put a napkin on top of my drink and ran out to use the pay phone on the corner. Happily there was no emergency; the issue had already been resolved.
Relieved that I could finish my drink, I walked back to Oblivion and saw Carlo standing outside the door, smoking a cigarette.
“Monsieur le Cummelier. How’re you doing, anyway? I didn’t get a chance to talk to you inside.”
“Great. I got a job, finally. One of the law firms wants me to be permanent.”
“And the minute I got offered the job I felt so good I stopped taking the Paxil, which is going to save me a ton of money because it was taking me forever to come and my phone bills were outrageous! But I think taking it for a while must have reset something in my brain, ‘cause now I feel great! I come when I’m supposed to and the orgasms are better than ever. Full-body! Multiple! Sometimes, I swear, I come in colors!”
“Speaking of colors,” I said, “any sign of the blue housedress?”
“No, and I miss her, but let’s face it, she made it harder to come than the Paxil.” He was looking at something over my shoulder. “See that patch of sky over there?” He pointed west, towards Ninth Avenue and the river beyond. “That blue is exactly the color of her housedress.”
For some reason this moved me, and I gave him a hug.
“This is why I love you, Carlo,” I said.
“This is why I love myself,” he crowed, “Several times a day!”