What We Lose(9)

My parents were never openly affectionate with each other, or with me. I never saw them exchange more than a quick squeeze on the shoulders at the end of the day, a chaste peck on the cheek before the other left the house.

I learned about sex in my liberal primary school, which ensured we were given healthy doses of sex ed starting in kindergarten. We were given permission slips to have our guardians sign, tacit acknowledgment for my parents that their duty was being farmed out successfully. At home, even the word “sex” was censored out of conversation. It was as if it didn’t exist in our house; sex was only a problem of the wild, tainted world outside.

But then one night, while I was in junior high, I heard my parents making love. I heard my mother panting loudly and eventually screaming, and my father grunting, in rhythm. I pulled my blanket over my head, terrified, shivering. I lay there for the rest of the night, my heart pumping, exhilarated and unable to sleep.

I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but when I looked back years later, after experimenting and then making those sounds on my own, I felt something different than fear. Familiarity; and perhaps some satisfaction that my parents were, despite their coldness, in love.

In the weeks after my mother died, my sex drive was merciless. I was stuck in my bedroom while family and friends circulated in the apartment’s outer rooms and hallways, barely able to leave my room, embarrassed for my eyes and nose that ran like faucets, my face blotched with red from wiping all the tears away. Aminah came and went, but there weren’t distractions of the magnitude I needed to keep me from suffering.

I masturbated often, mostly at night, but sometimes in the day, while I could hear the voices of my parents’ friends muffled through my bedroom door. I cycled through relief, then shame and horror, desperate for the release and powerless to stop the urge. I longed for the touch of someone else, but all I had was my hand. During the day, I envisioned my mother watching over me, and that comforted me. But when the urge inevitably came, I fought to banish the thought of her while pitifully jerking myself off in my childhood bed.

I work for a public health agency in Forest Hills, Queens a job that has systematically robbed me of my idealism since the day I started. With every day that goes by, every person who passes through our door, I banish further the possibility of anything ever truly changing for the better. I admitted this to my boss, an overweight middle-aged woman with dull red hair and three ex-husbands. She laughed at me. “So you’re finally getting it, huh?” she said, and walked away from me, cackling all the way down the hall.

They sent me to a conference on HIV/AIDS pharmaceuticals in Oregon. I spent four boring days floating disinterestedly from presentation to presentation to hotel bar before I noticed Peter sitting across the table from me. He was attractive, with dark red hair and serious eyes, high cheekbones, and a slight curve to his shoulders that suggested muscles and experience. That night, after everyone had eaten dinner and retired to their rooms, he was sitting alone at a table in the bar, something dark and half-drunk in his glass. I asked to sit with him, tentatively. I was nervous that he would, for some reason, say no.

When he pulled out the chair for me, I noticed that he was reading a book: a new biography of Malcolm X. I had just read a review of the book and tried to impress him with my knowledge. He looked at me, interested but nonchalant, and asked if I had read the other biography released this year. “No,” I had to admit, trying not to let my defeat show.

He told me he was thirty-three, seven years older than me. I repeated the Elijah Muhammad teaching my father had told me, that the ideal age for a woman should be one half the man’s age, plus seven years. He smiled with one side of his mouth, and sat forward in his chair. I knew that I had him.

He told me that he had left a PhD program in literature a year ago. Global health was his plan B. It wasn’t working out so well for him.

“I’m bored to death,” he told me, dropping a heavy palm on the Malcolm X book. Instead of helping people in need he was managing a bunch of recent college grads. I admitted that I was bored too, and this time we both laughed.

This was the first time I actually saw his face, actually saw him. I imagined him stroking my hair, what it would feel like to look at him across my pillow. We talked excitedly, with no breaks in the conversation. I forgot to order a drink, and before I knew it, the time was 3:00 a.m.

We were assigned a site visit together on the other side of town. Afterward, he took me cruising through the streets of Portland. He showed me around downtown and Chinatown, and then took me to King, lined with hair salons and corner stores. He pointed out the shabby high school where his father worked as a principal. We ended up on the Columbia River near the entrance to the Hawthorne Bridge, and watched the expanse slowly lift into the air to allow a boat to pass underneath.

He parked in a lot and we sat on the hood, our arms braced over our winter coats. My mind was six moves ahead; I thought of my hands moving through his hair, what his breath smelled like up close.

He told me that he was moving the following week to a larger apartment with his girlfriend. The words came out coldly, and he didn’t look at me afterward. We sat for a few more moments outside, and then I politely thanked him for the driving tour. We climbed back into his car and he drove me back to the hotel, where I barely slept that night, restless in my empty room. The next day, I got on a plane back to the East Coast, exhausted.

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