Again, not travel related, but this is one of the two pieces I’ve written over the years that I can still sort of tolerate.
It is graphic. If sex makes you uncomfortable, TURN BACK NOW. There might be people you know in this story. I’ve changed some names to protect anonymity, however, there are a few that remain unchanged.
I’m writing a book that covers some of what’s contained in this story. To do that, I’ll need to get used to publicly acknowledging that I was a prostitute for three years. This piece isn’t about that, but it is mentioned and it does (indirectly) apply.
I met Dustin the day after my grandfather died. He biked with Alex, our mutual best friend, to Lake Calhoun where I sat on the grass next to Josh, an ex-cokehead from one of my 12-step meetings.
“Dude, check out the ass on that girl in the black dress,” Josh said, punching my biceps. “Dope, right?”
“Yeah, Josh. Totally dope.”
I didn’t want to be with Josh. He was a 35-year-old gym rat with slicked-back black hair and cargo shorts. He tried to fuck underage girls. He told racist jokes. I didn’t particularly want to be with Alex either, since he’d left me crying at my apartment after I found out my grandfather passed. Emotions, especially those associated with the feminine, scared him.
I slept with Alex a week prior, simply because he was in my bed. We were watching Eastbound & Down after a morning bike ride and I closed my eyes and grinded on his legs and he ripped off his black jacket and black pants and tossed his glasses on the bedside table, pulling my hair like an animal. Breathing heavy like an animal. Thrusting inside me like an animal. He finished, I didn’t, and we tried not to talk about it.
My grandfather died on a Saturday in May. I didn’t feel much, but I felt everything. Numb body, exploding headspace. I tried tears, but they didn’t feel right. I tried anger, but started crying. I rode Alex’s yellow mountain bike to the Mississippi River and picked stinging nettles in a patch of trees, relieved at each lingering sting, like subdued electric shock therapy in the midst of too much nothing. I raised my chin toward the cirrus-clouded sky and told my grandfather I forgave him for the time he called me fat, and that his willingness to drive me to the hospital during my middle school breakdown eliminated any hard feelings.
Of course, that sentiment wouldn’t last. I would continue to hold an on-and-off grudge against him, in the way most pseudo-suicidals resent those who had any part in raising them. But in that moment, I felt real forgiveness and cried real tears and then biked home and sautéed my stinging nettles and dandelion greens with tofu I found in a dumpster.
I visited my grandfather in Mobile, Alabama a month before he died. It was my birthday. I was trying too hard to be selfless to actually be selfless, and it showed. I didn’t want to be in a house with a dying man watching Fox News and eating sugar free Butterscotch candies. I wanted the validation of a celebration. I wanted flowers, cakes, balloons, and babies — any sign of life would have sufficed.
Instead, I sat with my grandfather, his girlfriend, and my brother in the sun, watching my grandfather pick at a scab on his arm.
“Hey, Papa. You probably shouldn’t do that,” my brother warned.
My grandfather looked him in the eyes and ripped the scab off.
Papa’s living wake took place on his birthday in April 2014, a few weeks after my own birthday. Because he donated his body to medical science, there would be no funeral, just a celebration of life beside his deathbed. We spent the weekend on the Gulf Shores, 30 minutes from his home. He’d rented out condos for his birthday months before but was too sick to attend, so his brothers and nephews and sons and daughter shared three condos near the water. Zach and Luke, my younger brothers, got stuck with Uncle Doug, who packed his weekend necessities in empty dog food bags.
On the first night, my mother, consumed with grief, guzzled red wine until her lips were stained purple, then ran to the beach screaming about a séance, which turned out to be a group of Christians around a campfire. The next night, we had dinner at Jimmy Buffett’s sister’s restaurant, a tacky seafood joint with “GUMBO LOVE” painted on its teal roof. Luke got sick and walked in circles, my great aunt and gay uncle cried at the dinner table, and my mother drunkenly told me she was envious of my sobriety, thanking me for my role as designated driver.
My family was drunk and depressed, a lethal combination, and at a year and three months sober, I wanted to join them. I wanted to forget the smell of urine on my grandfather’s bed. I wanted to forget the memories of my mother vomiting what looked like spaghetti and grape juice into the toilet. I sobbed facedown on my rental bed, screaming something about the solace of suicide, then drove up and down the Gulf Shores’ main stretch, desperate for a drink. Instead, I bought wintergreen Grizzly at Walgreens and spent the rest of the weekend hawking big brown loogies into soda cans.
Papa’s kidneys were failing. Two tubes protruded from his back and filtered his urine into bags that hung by his thighs. Sometimes the tubes came loose, and urine soaked his clothes and bed. When his girlfriend changed his soiled diaper, I saw empty rolls of skin hanging like putty from his bones. He was no longer the man who screamed when the channel was changed and said “goddammit” in excess; he was a vulnerable being, terrified of his own mortality. I saw him clinging to life. I saw the back and forth nature of his urges to take another breath and give up. I saw tranquility. I saw regret. I bent over, my tears cascading towards his hairline, and kissed his head.
The line between life and death lit up like strip clubs, rendering the reality of the present moment inescapable. My mom forgot her father’s strict demeanor. My great uncles forgot their petty fights. I forgot everything. I lived and breathed mortality.
I wanted to remember. I sat in the red Victorian chair next to my Papa and thought about my first goldfish and four-wheeling and Christmas and how much he loved me and how good it felt to wrap my arms around him. But I wasn’t thinking about my grandfather — I was thinking about Mike. If I could just replace thoughts of my papa and death and urine and alcohol with thoughts of Mike, I would be fine.
As we said our goodbyes and left the room, my grandfather reached his weak right hand towards us and whispered, “I’m not ready for this.”
The night after my grandfather died and 12 hours before I met Dustin, I gave Mike Berte a blowjob in my Honda CRV after flirt-fighting with him in a mosh pit. I would leave my body by swallowing his. I gave him a blowjob in my car and he came and I didn’t and he said “We’ll have to work on that next time” and he shuffled back to his sober house in his tight, unwashed black jeans and bullet belt. But there wouldn’t be a next time. The next morning, I would meet Dustin and the next week, Mike would get back together with his former lover, methamphetamines.
I met Mike in the winter of 2013. I found him withdrawing behind a dumpster, hunched over and sick. He startled me. I whimpered and stepped back, hoping he hadn’t noticed, until I saw the patches on his pants. He was a punk kid — my kin.
“Are you okay?”
“No, I’m terrible. I’m whatever. I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine.”
I squatted beside him and told him I had been at a 12-step meeting. He said he used to go to meetings at the same church; he had three and a half years clean before his relapse.
Josh peered over from around the corner, frowned, and returned with a jacket and a bag of trail mix, which he set beside Mike.
“You okay, bro?”
“Good as ever.”
I bought Mike dinner at the Uptown Diner. A 12-stepper pulled me aside while Mike was in the bathroom shooting meth and said I shouldn’t pick random men up off the street when my boyfriend was away, as though I were biologically incapable of doing a good deed. Mike emerged, gave me his phone number, and left.
We texted back and forth periodically over the next few months, usually about how grateful he was that I’d helped him and how it possibly saved his life. He told me he got clean in early 2014 but relapsed on crack and intravenous heroin in Milwaukee. A month later, he returned to detox and moved into a St. Paul sober house.
I saw him for the second time at a meeting in Uptown. He had two weeks clean. He went out of his way to talk to meth dealers. I went out of my way to try to stop him. He had full sleeves, a mohawk, patch pants, and a bullet belt. I had a weakness for self-destructive crust punks.
Later that month, I told Adam, my boyfriend at the time, that we needed to take a break. On Monday, Mike and I disclosed our mutual longing to sleep with each other. On Tuesday, we had sex through text messages. On Wednesday, I caressed him with my foot beneath a table at Perkins, then gave him head while he drove my car and blasted Yelawolf’s “Your Daddy’s Lambo.” I shifted the car into neutral on I-94 East with my knee. On Thursday, Mike slept through my phone calls and — out of my own darkness and desperation — I almost slept with a blockhead hardcore kid who’d made it exceptionally clear that he wanted to fuck. I cancelled at the last minute and watched him mope outside my house for a half an hour. On Friday, I drove in circles around St. Paul, waiting for Mike to answer his phone. We fucked on my porch and I licked his crust punk armpit. On Sunday, Mike threw sticks at me like a little kid. I threw sticks back. Mike’s old sponsor said, “Aw, you guys are so cute” and I tried to believe it would last.
I saw Mike Berte biking down Nicollet in early September, four months after my grandfather died. I saw him see my car, unmistakable with its patriotic “FEAR THIS” bumper sticker. My cop repellent. As I drove past, I saw Mike’s face, thinner but familiar, and slammed on the brakes. He did the same. I rolled down the window. He perched his elbows on the door and leaned in close like he would to kiss me. I’m projecting.
I touched the top of Mike’s head, tracing the line his unruly mohawk once sprouted from. I did this on impulse, because that’s where my hand used to go. Because, months before, I had unspoken permission to touch him wherever — to whack him in the arm, to ruffle his hair, to dig my fingernails into his back. Because I forget that things change.
The skin on Mike’s face peeled off in chunks as we talked, and I watched a fleck fall from his cheek to his sweatshirt and remain on his sleeve like an unmelted snowflake. I wanted to scratch all of the dead skin off. I wanted to make him presentable.
“You’re so skinny, Mike.”
His lips were pursed in a permanent fish mouth. His khakis barely fit.
His voice, high-pitched and cartoonish, was all that was left of the Mike I remembered; the Mike who made me cum within minutes. Who made me cum because he was dirty and I was dirty and our bond felt dirty.
“Where are you going?”
“I gotta cop. I’m dope sick.”
We stared at each other in silence, my car and his bike and my face and his body jutting into 26th Street.
“Yeah, I’m sick.”
He wiped his runny nose with his sweatshirt, adding a few more immortal snowflakes to the pile collecting on his sleeve.
The weather was warmer, but Mike was in the same place he was last winter. Stuck in the same hussle, the same day played out on repeat. Get sick. Make money. Find drugs. Consume. Get sick. Make money. Find drugs. Consume.
Mike wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t helpless. He was attached to his story — to the overdoses and the dead friends and the days of selling himself. He embodied that story, forfeiting his essential Mike-ness to become The Drug Addict, The Whore, The Dealer, and The Homeless Kid Digging Through Your Trash. I could have smashed his face in glitter, drowned him in a mountain of handwritten love notes, and sacrificed everything I had to help, but I couldn’t make Mike love himself.
“Where are you staying?”
Mike avoided eye contact. He was probably back with Jane, his tweaker ex-girlfriend.
I thought of the May Day punk show and how Mike and I talked in the front yard while Jane sat on the porch, poking her friends’ shoulders and staring at me. How she dragged Mike to where she stood and put her arms around him, still staring at me. How I punched Mike in the back during a mosh pit. How I put him in a headlock and spun him around. How I pulled his hair. How he liked it.
“My mom’s coming up here this week.”
“Does she know?”
“Yeah, she knows.”
Since his relapse, Mike had lost both of his jobs, and I could only assume he was back to working the street. I thought about putting his bike in the trunk and driving us to the river, where we could sit in the grass and talk vague, apocalyptic philosophy. I thought about scooping him up and rocking him in my lap like a wounded bird. I thought about standing on his back so he couldn’t leave.
I did none of those things.
“I better get to this dude’s house.”
“I’m gonna hug you first.”
I opened the car door, pushing our human roadblock even further into the street, and pulled him close, hugging him like I thought a mother with unconditional love would hug her son. I hugged Mike Berte, the tweaker, the former lover, the self-loathing nihilist, next to my Honda CRV in the middle of 26th Street during rush hour, unaware or simply not caring about the cars, the honks, the stares.
We floated above them, two bodies manifesting opposite outcomes. Same chances, different results.
I let him go, watching him weave in and out of traffic through my car window. I didn’t take him to the park or cradle him in my arms or stand on his back, because he is not a sick bird. He’s a man.
I met Dustin the day after my grandfather died and I picked stinging nettles and gave Mike Berte a blowjob from the driver’s seat of my Honda CRV.
I was wearing my cherry dress. He was wearing his fried chicken and 40s shirt with his “EAT PUSSY” hat. I was riding his Alex’s mountain bike. He was riding Alex’s road bike. Alex was riding his third bike. Josh was talking about butts.
“Bro, what do you think of that ass?” he asked Dustin, the boy I just met, whose first impression of me was now tied to the former coke head.
“Well, it’s definitely an ass, I guess.”
Josh went to meet up with one of his “gay friends from the gym,” and Alex, Dustin, and I rode our bikes around Calhoun, laughing as Dustin yelled “nice ride!” to anyone passing on a green rental bike. We stopped at Hidden Beach, where Dustin taught a stoner how to light joints like a sailor and I did a hippie twirl in my cherry dress then squatted and wrote “die hippie scum” in the sand.
After I left, I texted Alex and asked for Dustin’s number. Alex said Dustin already asked for mine. I figured we were both looking for a quick fuck — for something to alleviate the shared existential crises of 20-somethings who fill holes to feel whole.
We planned a date. I envisioned going to his house, spacing out while he made small talk, caressing his dick during a movie, having sex, and sleeping with someone else the next day. Part of my prediction was correct. We went to the Seward Cafe. He held the door for me and bought a hummus platter for us to share. Within ten minutes, he was explaining his family dynamics. He had two adopted brothers, a half-brother, divorced parents, and shithead step dad.
I wanted to remain mythical. I wanted him to shape my being into a fairytale — to worship an illusion instead of the real me. Instead, I told him everything over the course of a week.
We finished our hummus platter and coffee and went back to his house, where white sheets along the back wall served as a screen for an old projector. Dustin chose the X-Files movie, which I later learned was an appropriate segue into his unforeseen love for conspiracy theory. Within 20 minutes, I was on top of him.
We fooled around in his room and chain smoked on his decaying front porch, where he told me he was proud of himself for going a full day without smoking weed. He launched into a rant about how the pyramids may have been built by ancient aliens as a landing pad. I laid my head in his lap and nodded along to his speech patterns.
Our relationship was purely carnal for the first few weeks. We had sex twice a day. I took my underwear off in the front seat of my car during a lunch break and he bunched it up, held it to his nose, and sniffed. He gave me nude photos of himself that he’d taken for a photography class. I scratched my name onto his chest. Youbelongtome. We were experimenting with numbing ourselves. Dustin longed to numb his loneliness. Before meeting me, he’d done so by drinking the better part of a nightly 12-pack and smoking through an eighth of weed in two days. I longed to numb the pain of mental illness and my grandfather’s death. Before meeting him, I’d done so through sex and impulsivity. Neither of us was in any condition to forge a stable relationship.
But something switched. In June, Dustin saw my first breakdown. He saw my eyes glaze over. He heard my silence. He touched my rigid, unmoving body. He knocked on the door and whispered to me as I screamed in the bathroom, in the midst of a flashback. He cried when I rolled off the bed, knocking the lamp onto my skull and feeling nothing. He’d made a promise to himself; no matter what, he wouldn’t leave.
Dustin asked me to marry him while we were sprawled out naked on the cat hair couch. We’d been dating for just over a month.
I laughed at him.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m serious. I want to be with you forever. I’m done searching.”
I smiled and said, “I guess” and he took it as a yes and gave me a skateboard bearing to wear as a wedding band. We joked about courthouses, Vegas, and impulsively eloping without telling a soul. Let’s just do it and get it over with. Fuck the naysayers. We still weren’t sure if we were joking. I still wasn’t sure he would really stay with me.
Dustin officially proposed on a rock overlooking Duluth and Lake Superior. I say “officially” loosely, as Dustin isn’t one for tradition. He got down on one knee, looked up at me grinning, and said “So are you gonna marry me or what?”
I said yes.
Outside of the Hexagon on the night of the blood moon, Dustin was approached by a 20-something wearing shorts, high tops, a tight basketball jersey, a gold chain, and a puffy polyester coat with fur trim.
“Dusty, man, do you remember me? I knew you before, right? Hey man, no hard feelings about what happened, dude, I just love you and, like, us creative types gotta stick together. I love your band, man, and I love you too because we’re both doin’ this shit and we gotta have each other’s backs.”
Dustin opened his mouth to speak, but the kid was already on the phone with someone else by the time his monologue was complete.
“Damn, dude, I didn’t expect to see him,” Dustin told me. “That’s Conor. A few years ago, I Tom Sawyered him out of $20 bucks. He came to The Wedge while I was working and told me it ruined his life.”
Apparently, Conor wanted to borrow some of Dustin’s records. Dustin told him he could do so in exchange for lending him $20, which he never paid back, even after Conor returned the records.
“Well, you have to give him his money. Right now. I’m not leaving until you do it.”
“But he’s just gonna waste it on something stupid.”
“How did you spend the $20 bucks he gave you?”
“I bought beer.”
“Pay him back.”
Dustin dawdled with his Summit for a few minutes, looking sheepish under my unceasing glare. He walked to the ATM machine, paid the $2.50 fee, and headed to the smoking area to find Conor, who was manically introducing and reintroducing himself to anyone who would listen.
Conor grabbed a chair and, though he couldn’t sit still for long, plopped down next to Dustin.
“Hey man, you still talk to that Alex kid?”
“Yeah, he’s got 18 months sober now. He’s doing really well.” Dustin reached into his front pocket. “Listen man, I think I owe you this.”
He handed him the crumpled $20.
“NO FUCKIN WAY, MAN. NO FUCKIN WAY.”
He wouldn’t take the $20. Each time he got close to it, he jumped back in fear.
“I got the best job of my life, dude. I’m so happy. You just made my day, but I can’t take that, man. I don’t even know what that was about anymore.”
“Take it or I’m gonna burn it.”
A light bulb went off in Conor’s already lit mind.
“Dude, that’s a great idea! Let’s burn that fucker!”
He took the bill from Dustin, asked for a lighter, and set the $20 on fire again and again until it was nothing but ashes commingling with cigarette butts on the sidewalk.
“Fucking capitalism,” a punk said in passing.
Conor didn’t burn the bill to spite Dustin. In fact, I doubt the concept of spite would have registered with him in the midst of his potentially drug-induced euphoria. He did it because it felt right. It felt right to Dustin, my broke as fuck fiancé, too.
“I think about being a baby a lot,” Conor told us. “You know, when you’re a baby, your mom and dad tell you you can be anything. You can be a firefighter, a vet, a teacher, whatever. I’m trying to be a baby again — to see that infinite potential. You know what I’m saying? I’m in two bands now and I think I could play with them for the rest of my life. That’s happiness, dude.”
After the bill was burnt, Dustin leaned over and whispered “thank you.”
“Me? For what?”
“For making me do the right thing.”
The feeling was mutual.
I didn’t want to watch the blood moon. The transient nature of beautiful things was disturbing in its familiarity. I wanted to stay in bed, thrashing through nightmares, comforted by consistency.
Dustin wasn’t having it. He woke me up at 5 a.m. and dragged me to the sunroom, pointing at something I couldn’t see.
“Dustin, this is stupid.”
“It’s subtle, Leif.”
From my view, Cub Foods concealed the blood moon. Dustin traded spots with me.
“Look up, darling. It’s in the trees.”
It’s November now. It’s been five months since my grandfather died and I picked stinging nettles and gave Mike Berte a blowjob in my Honda CRV the night before meeting Dustin.
Three years ago, I was a prostitute, whoring myself to any old man with a few hundred spare bucks, not because I needed it, but because I liked the rush. Two years ago, I was an Adderall fiend, not because I liked drugs, but because I wanted to be numb. One year ago, I was stuck in a one-bedroom apartment with a man I didn’t love.
Two months ago, I was too depressed to leave my bed. My brain had turned on me, shooting ruminative thoughts into my stomach, my mouth, my heart, and my hands. Dustin turned the bedroom light on, ripped the comforter off my fetus-shaped body, and said, “Come on, baby. It’s beautiful outside.” I pulled the comforter back toward my chin. Dustin shrugged and got dressed, singing along with the doo-wop floating from the living room to my bed. He danced while buttoning his flannel. He smiled at me, a fatigued ball of misery. He tipped his hat. He blew me a kiss. He whispered, “I love you.”
I finally trusted it.