Monday, January 5, 2009

Men I Didn't Sleep With

In 1996, I attended an animal-rights conference in Baltimore with my sister-in-law Pam. We met at Midway Airport in Chicago, and when she saw me across the crowded concourse, she hollered, “Look at you! You’re lanky!” Strangers turned to look, probably thinking, “She’s not all that lanky.” I’d just lost over a hundred pounds, but they had no way of knowing that.

Pam and I flew together from Chicago to Baltimore, checked into our hotel, and headed out for Chinese food. At the restaurant, we met an elderly European man (Austrian, maybe? Belgian?) who was also a conference attendee, and he bought us spring rolls. I didn’t realize that I was on the prowl until I found myself flirting with this very old, slightly chubby guy with the accent and the cane. The three of us hung out in his hotel room, and later he watched us swim at the hotel pool. (Has SILF been coined, with S for senior?) We were chatting poolside, when it became shockingly evident that the man was a bit of an old-world Nazi, and Pam and I simultaneously lost interest in him. She later observed: "He probably would have been more circumspect
if he’d known how close he was to getting in your pants."

The conference was not the target-rich zone I had hoped for. The women outnumbered the men, and most of the men were very young. Many of the men fell into a category I call Portland Man. He’s socially responsible, morally and spiritually developed, artistic, and underemployed. He’s hetero, but he respects women so much, and respects his own femininity so much, that he’s careful not to offend women by entertaining the possibility of getting laid. Of course, he’s vegan, because he respects animals even more than he respects women. He’s probably not getting enough protein, so he tires easily. Even so, if you meet him when he’s in his twenties, and convince him that sex is something you actually enjoy—and not something that you simply endure because men are brutes—he’ll do what’s necessary to “facilitate your orgasm.” But beware: He cries a lot. And once he’s past his mid-thirties, he’ll probably choose to forgo sex in favor of a cup of tea and a quick nap on the couch, all cozy in his Teva’s and ratty sweatpants from the thrift store.

Back at the hotel, I stayed in bed one morning while Pam took an early shuttle to the convention center. For months, I’d been secretly and obsessively chatting online at home, probing the seedy underbelly of the mid-nineties internet, and I had the phone number of a man in Baltimore, a married-with-children house painter who resembled Jeff Foxworthy and drank Killian’s Irish Red. I called him. Prepare to be shocked, Dear Reader, but the man did not fly to my side and make me his own. “I’m sorry…Who is this?” he asked. He cleverly hid his delight at hearing from me, and ended the short conversation by suggesting that I never call again. “This is where I live!” he hissed.

I caught a noon shuttle, had lunch with Pam (a bowl of pinto beans and a cob of corn), and attended a session about the horrors of rodeo.

(I’m firmly anti-rodeo. I’ve attended only one, with my high-school buddy Heather and her family. I left early, when a small monkey dressed as a cowboy was strapped to a saddled dog, and the two of them chased a herd of sheep. It was unclear who was the most terrified: the monkey, the dog, or the sheep. I was angry and tearful, and I walked the two miles home, disgusted by the laughing crowd.)

The man who led the session about rodeos was close to my age. He was bright and articulate, with a southern accent; he readily admitted to not being vegan. I was quite taken, of course, and delightfully surprised an hour later to spot him on my shuttle bus. Feeling bold, I moved from my seat to his, and introduced myself. He was even cuter up close: charming and flirtatious, with an easy grin. We had ten minutes together on the uncrowded bus, and we never stopped talking and laughing. As we arrived at the hotel, and as he no doubt sensed my eagerness to follow him to his room, he gently said, “You know I’m gay…right?”

Later, I saw him at the scheduled March on Washington (“What do we want? Animal Rights! When do we want them? Now!”). We’d finished marching, and I was sitting alone in a city park sipping a diet Coke, wearing bright-yellow cuffed shorts from Old Navy and a Rosie-the-Riveter T-shirt. He plopped down next to me. “My mama told me about girls like you,” he said, smiling, our thighs touching, his hand on my bare knee. “She told me that if I ever found a girl like you, I should grab her, and never let her go.” I leaned against him, my head on his shoulder. “Are you sure you’re gay?” I asked. “I’m sure,” he said, laughing softly, and then he said good-bye.

I wonder if he’s still gay.


A dozen years ago, a friend mentioned a place called Nestucca, a spiritual retreat west of Salem, Oregon, owned and operated by Jesuit priests. Eventually, I thought to Google it, and several years ago (and twice since), I visited.

I took a Southwest flight from Salt Lake City to Portland, and was one of the first people to board. From my window-seat toward the rear of the plane, I watched as a man made his way along the narrow aisle. He was in his prime, with long legs and Black Irish coloring. “He looks like the older brother of an L. L. Bean model,” I thought. I felt free to watch him, knowing that he wasn't watching me (I was wrong). He kept approaching. The plane was nearly empty—he could have chosen almost any seat—and he chose the seat next to me. (Is there anything better than being chosen...being preferred? That question reveals a lot about my junior-high days, especially gym class and school dances.)

As strangers sometimes do (especially strangers pressed for time), we bypassed small talk (unless you would list “flirting” as a subset of “small talk”). A lot can be said in a short time if the trivial is eschewed, and we revealed all the best and worst about ourselves. “I’m like this,” we said to each other. “Does that turn you off? ‘Cause if it does, I want to know now.” One can save a lot of time by acting like a grown-up.

He was retired military, and an off-duty Southwest pilot (which surprised and intimidated me, because I’m rather unaccomplished). He was married, just like me. During the final approach, he asked if I was going to rent a car. I said that I was going to use public transportation. Matter-of-factly, even presumptuously, he said, “No, you’re not,” and he offered to drive me anywhere I wanted to go. I was charmed, because it was a kind gesture, and because I like being bossed around by handsome men. Even so--and fearing that I’d regret it forever--I said no thank you. He gave me his phone number, just in case spiritual evolution wasn’t as much fun as I’d anticipated.

We kept chatting (urgently, compulsively) until the plane was empty. We stood. “You’re taller than I thought,” he said, but not in a bad you’re-fatter-than-I-thought way. We walked out together, enjoyed a prolonged hug, and said good-bye.

Upon arriving at Nestucca, I focused on opening my heart and quieting my mind (and I eventually stopped thinking about the guy on the airplane, and how his neck smelled like oranges and eucalyptus and justifiable adultery).

One chilly afternoon, I hiked a short distance to the yurt, a solemn communal space tucked into the forest. I’d been there the day before, crying and meditating, but mostly crying. (It’s an emotional place, Nestucca. It’s easy to come undone.) I was used to having the spot to myself, but—this should come as no surprise—Portland Man was there, in what looked like a painful yoga position. “Oh! Hi!” he said. Always optimistic, I grinned, and removed my shoes. I spread a quilt on the floor (my plan for the day was more napping and less crying). “How’s it going?” I asked, in what I hoped was an inviting tone. “Peace to you,” I added enthusiastically. I’d heard other retreatants use those words.

Fact is, I was lonesome. There was a lot of rain, a lot of silent meditation, and no meat at meals. I just wanted someone to talk to. He was finished, and he picked up his mat and walked to the door. “I didn’t mean to run you off,” I said, but he was gone.

The next day, I was alone (and lonely) in a common area, gazing out the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Nestucca Bay, warming my hands on a mug of tea, when an elderly white-haired man approached, and introduced himself. He was intrigued that I was a non-Catholic (an ex-Mormon, even!), and we sat together and talked for an hour while waiting for liturgy to begin. “Seems to me that growing up Mormon didn’t hurt you at all,” he said, eyes twinkling, as we parted ways that evening. I resisted the impulse to wait until everyone was asleep, and then knock quietly at his bedroom door.

He was sick, and he spent quite a bit of time in his room, with an oxygen tank. The morning I was scheduled to leave, we sat side by side on a wooden bench in the bright (if not quite warm) sunshine. I took a photo of him, the only photo I took during that visit. Later, he reached into his pocket and gave me a rosary with an imperfect number of beads, and said that it would bring me luck. It smelled like his cologne. (Occasionally, I still sleep with it wrapped around my hand.)

His buddy (a man my age) observed the connection that was forming, and encouraged me to stay another day. But I fled...unsure of my motives, confused about everything...hugging, weeping, shivering, smelling my rosary...certain that I’d never see my new friend again. “Oh, God, hear our prayers."

A week later, I received a charming letter from him, with information on how to use the rosary. I pored over the instructional pamphlet, trying to find meaning in the prayers. I wrote back, thanking him, enclosing the photo, but he died before my letter arrived. His wife in Seattle wrote with the news, and--all these years later--she and I continue to exchange letters. I do so with a clear conscience, and no secrets. I guess the rosary did bring me luck.

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