When I read William Faulkner’s work I feel like a child who’s been caught watching something he’s not supposed to be watching.
That’s why I space out my reading to about a book of his every few years. As I Lay Dying, Light in August, The Sound and the Fury—currently, I’m with Sanctuary…
I feel like I should be reading it through a peephole.
It was Natalie’s idea to meet at the Griffith Observatory. It was one of her favorite places, and I had never been—I was still kinda new to Los Angeles—so it was a perfect first-date spot.
I arrived early—right on time, actually. I parked my rental car in the main lot closest to the Observatory and walked over to the Astronomer’s Monument on the front lawn to wait for her. I stood in front of the large structure with Galileo and the other concrete boys overlooking the parking lot.
Throngs of pilgrims hoofing it from their parking spaces down the hill passed by us. I had an idea of what Natalie looked like—she had posted a couple pics of her face on her HowAboutWe profile, but nothing full-body—so I paid attention to any lone female coming up the path. Online dating had prepared me to be disappointed, because it had already disappointed me on a number of occasions. Photos, no matter how candid, can still be doctored.
But there she was. I recognized her. Even from this distance I could tell the face she presented in selfie-style was the same one heading toward me, except this time it was hidden under a pair of Jackie-O’s. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail.
As she neared, I smiled and scoped her blue velour tracksuit.
Natalie was late, apologetic, and the skinniest girl I had ever met for a date.
We hugged, and I thought: Anorexia? Bulimia? What’s it gonna be?
Like all men I have a sexual bucket list, which I’m trying to check the fuck out of. Most of the fantasies are porn-inspired and pretty much impossible (I will never have the money, stamina, or lack of fear of STDs necessary to make them cum true). Others I was forced to add to the list, because they really happened—and I feared that if I didn’t add them and check them off, then I might end up repeating them. So if anybody out there has listed “stripper takes a shit on your bedroom floor,” well, I’ve beaten you to it, pal. But skinny gal—with or without the eating disorder—is definitely somewhere on my list.
Plus, Natalie was very pretty, and I wondered what was happening under the velour. How pronounced were her hipbones? Was the weight loss a new development? And if so, had she had time to buy new panties to go with her atrophy?
But beyond the allure of skinny sex, the two of us hit it off from the start. Sometimes that happens—within seconds of meeting someone you feel like you’ve known them for years, and now, finally, you’re both getting around to visiting the Observatory together.
This was her place, so I put her in charge of the itinerary
“I haven’t eaten yet,” I said, “so I was wondering if maybe after this we could get a bite, if you know a place around here.”
“Oh,” she said, almost coyly. “I kinda have an issue with food.”
I knew it! I thought. No shit. But then I thought about her word choice—issue. Why “issue”? Was it political? Was she vegan? Would I have to reveal that I was the son of a butcher? Were we gonna fight before we even swapped telescopic looks to the sky?
“Oh, OK,” I said. “What’s the issue?”
“You should probably have a drink when I tell you.”
I didn’t want to push it—we weren’t even that far into the lobby. Was there a bar onsite?
“All right,” I said. “You can tell me whenever you want.”
Natalie liked buildings. More specifically, she liked buildings that were about to be torn down. Vacant. Neglected. Dangerous.
Let a building stand unoccupied long enough, and people will find a way inside it. To pick its bones for scrap. To create ulcers on its insides. To leave droppings.
Buildings break. And Natalie liked to sneak into them—before they crumbled—and take pictures.
There was a building in Downtown L.A. she’d been staking out for months. Trespassing was a hell of a second-date idea. But until then we had the Observatory, which was very much alive with visitors and sunlight. We waited for a tour guide to fire up a Tesla coil, then we walked outside, up stairs and down stairs. We stopped to take in the view. The Observatory seemed like the perfect place to watch the dome of the world crumble.
Natalie pointed in the direction of her apartment. I was staying in Echo Park, so she shifted her arm to guide me to my temporary home.
“They shot Rebel Without a Cause here,” she said, no longer pointing at anything.
I still haven’t seen the film in its entirety, but I do remember the scene.
“Too bad we didn’t bring our switchblades,” I said. “We could have reenacted it.” (Terrible date idea.)
“There’s a cafe,” she said, “if you’re hungry.”
Through the window of the cafe I saw some pilgrims’ plates loaded with greens and I thought I might be able to get a healthy meal while learning about the stars in the daytime. But it turned out all they were offering on the menu was kung pao chicken with a side of string beans.
Like any gentleman with a sexual bucket list, I was paying, but all Natalie wanted was a bottle of water.
I carried my tray cafeteria-style to a table on the patio. We sat down. She twisted open the cap on her water, as I forked a brace of string beans into my mouth. They tasted like they had come from that section of your fridge where all forgotten veggies go to die, and you only remember them when you start to smell their decomposition over the Indian takeout.
“So,” I said, forcing down the calories. “Are you gonna tell me what your deal with food is?”
She took a sip of water. “You really should have a drink.”
“Do I not want to be eating when you tell me?”
“No, it’s not that.”
“Then go ahead,” I said. I forced another bite. Maybe it was the chicken this time.”
“I can’t eat food,” she said.
“Because I have a rare genetic mutation that affects the connective tissue in my small intestine.”
There was no spit take like in the movies. She was basically telling me that she didn’t have a small intestine. So it wasn’t an eating disorder she had—or it was an eating disorder. A disorder more fucked-up than any amount of barfing.
The plate of food in front of me lay untouched for a little while, as Natalie explained her condition to me.
She had been living a normal life, until the mutation kicked in around her 24th year on planet Earth. For 24 years she had known the taste of food. She lit up with the memory of it. You could see BBQs, junk food, and fancy spreads in her eyes. And for the last six years—Natalie was 30 at the time of our date—her body would not permit her to indulge in even the most innocent of edibles, the most simple of carbohydrates.
“Sugars are particularly dangerous for me,” she said.
I looked down at my plate—at this shitty meal—and felt terrible eating it in front of her.
“Don’t,” she said. “Enjoy it. Enjoy it, because I can’t.”
I wish I could have done that for her, but the food was just too terrible.
She drank from her bottle of water. Her lips made it look delicious and sad. As it turns out she can also drink coffee (black), some teas, and, of all things, vodka.
A small gift, Nature?
Bullshit. You’re a cruel asshole.
But so was I—not cruel per se, but an a-hole, for sure—as I imagined how little vodka it would take to get her drunk.
“But how do you get your calories?” I said.
“Intravenously,” she said. “I’ll show you.”
She took off her velour top, under which she wore a gray cardigan. The cardigan went next, putting up more of a fight than the tracksuit jacket had. Now, sitting before me, in a white tank top, she wasn’t as skinny as I had expected. I was happy about that.
She raised her right arm—as if she were about to flex her guns—to reveal a couple tubes inserted into the skin near her biceps. This was her PICC (pronounced “pick”). This was how she “ate.” Around the PICC were some flecks of the sticky remnants of tape—because when Natalie showers, she has to seal off the PICC. Even water becomes a danger.
Her “food”—amino acids and the other necessary building blocks of food—comes in a bag designed specifically for her by a specialist, who makes sure that in each pouch Natalie is getting every nutrient her body needs to live. (Even her failed small intestine gets to feed at the trough.)
“How many of these bags do you go through?” I said.
“One a day,” she said. “But sometimes I’ll take off a day, depending on how I feel.”
“How long does it take to “eat”?”
“Wait. What?” I said. “12 hours?”
12 fucking hours for the liquid food to run its course through her veins! So, to multitask, she “eats” when she sleeps—hooks up the IV next to her bed.
I felt for the poor girl, but there was still a part of me stroking a pencil over the bucket list, wondering what it would be like to spend the night with her, sharing the bed with Natalie and her drip.
“How much does it cost?” I said—referring to the nutrients, not the threesome!
“$1000 a bag.”
“Holy. Shit,” I said. “That’s $7,000. A week.”
She seemed to enjoy feeding me the details, and I was eating it up, all curiosity at this point. I even had the nerve to ask her how she poops.
“Let’s leave that for the second date,” she said.
I laughed, but couldn’t help but think of her asshole at that moment. Because if Natalie’s small intestine wasn’t functioning, then that meant her digestive track pretty much stopped there, right? You can’t leap from stomach to large intestine and then hit sunlight, can you?
I looked down at my plate. She must have the cleanest asshole in the galaxy.
“This really isn’t any good,” I said, and looked back up at her. “Just so you know.”
“That’s OK,” she said. “Enjoy it.”
The date changed after Natalie’s revelation.
We checked out the gravity exhibit, where you can see how much you weigh on the other planets in our solar system. (Pluto was still included. Its floor scale was the same size as the other heavenly bodies’.)
First, we tested our weights on Earth—I didn’t peek at Natalie’s—then we walked over to Venus. I wonder how much Natalie’s affliction weighed on the goddess of love?
It was a heavy burden, I know, and a lot to drop on an unsuspecting guy on the first date. How many first dates had there been for her? So much of what we do as a species revolves around food and drink, and here was Natalie, so young, so outgoing, a very cool person—and she’d been cut off from the tribe in the most basic of ways. It was beyond unfair.
I know I’ve done a terrible job drawing Natalie for you. I’ve been too caught up on her mutation and my own puerile thoughts—they are the reasons I started writing this piece in the first place: to tell one o my “crazy date stories.” Because of that my memories are tainted, the narrative a bit contrived.
But there is also something else happening—and I only realize it while on a Virgin America flight from JFK to LAX, about a week before Mother’s Day of this year, 2013.
When the date was over I walked with Natalie down to her car, against the steady flow of pilgrims who were hiking up the hill to be closer to the stars.
When we reached her ride, I gave Natalie a hug and told her I’d give her a call. Maybe for our second date we’d check out that building downtown she had told me about—the one they were going to tear down, the one she wanted to photograph before it was gone.
She pulled out of her parking spot, and I started back up the hill—becoming a part of the procession—and wondered where the colostomy bag had been hiding on the skinny girl.
I figured it would take at least one more date to find out… What a piece-of-shit idea, huh? To ask this girl out again just to see. As if she existed just on the off chance that I may want to write about her one day. (If she even wanted to see you again, you arrogant asshole!)
That’s one of the problems of being a writer and a comedian. Sometimes you feel like you’re chasing a story. “Ooh, let me ride this one out, because it’s an interesting premise—and I’ll probably get a bit out of it.”
Its one thing to use what life has already dealt you. It’s another thing to strap a drill to another human being’s digestive track and mine the shit out of it.
I never called Natalie. Contrary to the thoughts that fuck around in my brain and find their way onto this site, I’m just not that kind of guy. I didn’t want to use her for artistic purposes (a term someone else might wield in his defense). I didn’t want to exploit her for carnal reasons—an additional row inserted into the spreadsheet I devote to my sexual bucket list (like my own sex life, I’m still trying to figure out Excel; I may stick to pencil and paper). But more than anything—and I only realized this on the plane from NY to L.A.—I didn’t want to use Natalie to understand love.
When I think about love, I think about my parents. They’ve been married for about as long as I’ve been around, and a few years ago my mother came down with diverticulitis: her small intestine burst, went septic, and she would have died were it not for an emergency operation that removed a length of her intestines (I don’t know how many inches) and created a new hole in her side, so she could defecate (uncontrollably) into colostomy bags. Although humiliating, disgusting, and “so weird” (my mother’s words), the plastic baggies that hung from her side were necessary for her body to heal from the life-saving mutilation of her insides.
For months she and my father worked together to clean and dress the open wound—“her new asshole.” At one point there was a terrible infection, the pain of which I can’t imagine. That needed cleaning too. My mother tells me she couldn’t have done it without my father.
In time the infection healed, as did her small intestine, and my mother’s plumbing was reconnected, finally. They boarded up her new asshole and gave her 64-year-old one back its job.
I imagine that had Natalie and I met and fallen in love before her mutation switched on, I would have been able to walk through it with her—to clean whatever wounds may have come. And if I was eating some awful food, and she asked me to enjoy it—because she couldn’t—I’d be able to do that for her too. I’d even order seconds. Love will do that.
Years ago, a friend brought me to her 10-year high school reunion. We had slept together a number of times during the months leading up to the reunion—but we never got serious. Although I can’t claim to have been amazing in the sack, I was one hell of a date the night members of the graduating class of ’90-something got together in a small catering hall on the east side of Manhattan. I was social, entertaining, the type of wingman you’d want riding alongside you on any mission into your past.
Even though it wasn’t my alma mater, by the end of the night I felt like one of the popular kids in school—except I was “returning” with a full head of hair and a little more youth than my “classmates” (my 10-year was still some years away).
Eventually, my friend wrote a story about that night. It was one of those memoirs-masquerading-as-fiction thingamajigs. I was a character in it. She named me Otto.
In the same story she also wrote about another guy—with whom things had been more serious than they had been with me. And he had these eyes. Although I don’t remember the exact words she used to describe them—something about an aquarium—I do remember being envious of her description of his eyes. Both as a writer and a lover.
She let me read the story, and I gave her notes. I was able to distance myself a good amount from “Otto”—maybe because she had chosen to leave out a lot of details. I’m not sure if it was because she didn’t want to hurt me—I had been such a great date after all—or she felt that those specifics didn’t serve the purpose of the story. Or maybe it was just that I saw a different story.
I met the guy with the beautiful eyes in real life a couple of times and didn’t see in him what she saw. And I tried to, I did—but who gives a fuck? Those eyes she described were all that mattered. What she saw in them. What they made her feel. What she learned from them. Lessons about herself, about love, about always kinda being in high school.
Maybe a part of me, in spite of the distance I gave to the story, wanted to understand why she preferred The Eyes over Otto. Damn, I really wish she wouldn’t have been so careful with Otto. Otto should have suffered some more in the story. He did in real life. But I guess I have the opportunity to tell Otto’s story, if I want to.
We are material, ladies and gentlemen. The storytellers in our lives have us in their outlines. Most of the time they’re going to draw us either uglier than we truly are or more beautiful than we can ever imagine ourselves being. Sometimes they’ll get us dead-on.
I’ve been mining my past relationships for material for a while now. This shit basically writes itself. I approach the subject matter with humor and a confessional spirit I attribute to my exhibitionist tendencies (“Look at me, everybody! Why ain’t cha lookin’?”) and to the Catholicism of my youth.
My first Confession was huge. Corpus Christi Church. CCD. Sometime before my first Communion. It’s bad enough to lie to a child about the nature of the universe; it’s downright disgusting to make that same child confess his “sins” to some stranger in a box. The Church gave us a choice—ha!—to sit behind a partition and confess, or to sit facing the priest, with no barrier between us and just enough room for the Holy Ghost.
I chose to face the priest. It was funny—only now, looking back—how God’s bureaucrat and the neophyte sat facing one another on identical chairs. I don’t remember if my feet could touch the floor, but I do remember how tears were boiling on my cheeks before I even told him how sorry I was for disrespecting my mother, cursing, and whatever wrongs a second grader commits. In the end I was forgiven. I can’t say the same for the priest.
Now, through comedy and writing, I confess my sins. But I do it without looking for forgiveness—at least not from the Big Voyeur upstairs. I’m looking for something else. I’m looking for the Eyes.
And should you find yourself in one of my stories, or scenes, or jokes, please understand that I mean you no harm. I’m not your confessor. And it’s not your story.
Talia was training for a half-Ironman when she messaged me on OkCupid to ask:
“…Of all the erotic sentences you wrote during that post-college stint, would you mind sharing your all-time favorite?”
It turns out my favorite line of smut is also the best line I’ve ever written:
“I felt like I was all dick, and no humanity.”