Storytelling is basically just art, flame, and spastic eels until the truth comes through.

This story is part of my long-languishing semi-fictionalized memoir of the “year of singleness” after my (now ex-) wife and I separated, and before I met Amy. I first wrote this bit up in response to a question someone asked about “people who look like they’d be amazing, but are actually terrible in the sack.”

It’s the genesis of a chapter in a book I’ve been working on since November of 2012. It’s not edited for tone or fit, but this is largely the story I’ll tell though I’ll tell it from a less blatantly direct perspective eventually.

Back in the dark ages of online dating, when flip phones and blue Nokia bricks were the smartest phones we had, I watched my marriage of eleven years flush itself down a swirling toilet of apathy, emotional betrayal, suppressed disappointments, and irrational acts of senseless interpersonal destruction.

My soon-to-be-ex-wife lived in the apartment exactly one flight of stairs down the sidewalk from mine. I had to walk past her window every time I went to or from my car. I was heavily invested in my delusion that she would suddenly “wake up” and run back into my arms and into my life. I did tremendously doormat-ish things, like cook her breakfast, pay her horse boarding bill, and clean the stall of an animal that pretty much personified the nature of our relationship: mean, angry, unpredictable, expensive, and generally ignored ninety percent of the time. All of which meant that I was obviously ripe for that bastion of emotional health and relationship nirvana: eHarmony.

From March until New Year’s Day, I explored the landscape of dating options composed of a man who honestly checked “separated but not divorced” on the questionnaire and the women for whom that wasn’t a deal-breaker.

Please, stop for a moment and simply ponder the sheer stupidity displayed by both sides of that relationship tango.

I’d already been through the “domination demanding communication consultant”, the “one-night never got to stand”, and the “nymphomaniac church-secretary with the Precious Moments tramp-stamp tattoo”…and my circle of friends was basically screaming at me to just try some relationship-free hookups (the key quote from this time was “give less of a fuck, and instead just give more fucks in general”).

I surrendered to the group mind and set out to find something physical first, last and always. Reviewing my matches I saw a connection with “Sensual Yoga Teacher with Insatiable Curiosity” (her headline, not mine) and I pulled the proverbial trigger. Three emails and a four-hour instant messenger conversation later, and we had a date.

I met her after work at her Yoga Studio/Spirituality Supplies/New Age meets Orientalist Bookstore. As I’d entered into this with basically purely physical aspirations, I was surprised that for the first time in the history of internet dating, her pictures didn’t do her actual physique a bit of justice.

Whatever you imagine a “sexually curious yoga instructor” to look like, she looked better. I’m five minutes into our date, we haven’t even left for dinner, and I’m already imagining the complex Kama Sutra maneuvers we’ll be performing later that night (our instant messenger conversation made it clear to both of us that “dating” was not our expected outcome).

Dinner was completely unmemorable. For all I can recall, I ate cardboard. I invited her back to my place, and she deferred. My first instinct was that I wasn’t as appealing in person, and I suggested going somewhere for a drink, or perhaps meet another night. Gave the easy out.

Instead, she grabs my wrist and practically drags me out of the restaurant and the three blocks back to her building. Apparently, “I would do”.

The first thing I noticed was that her apartment was sparse. I don’t mean minimalist feng shui, I mean a mattress on the floor, milk crates for end tables, a beanbag couch, and the lightbulb in the kitchen and the hallway AND the bathroom were out. It had a distinct “college freshman” vibe.

Whatever I *thought* was going to happen…it sure didn’t go how I imagined it. It…it was…off.

Have you ever kissed a person who has no idea what to do with their lips? Like, they’ve seen enough movies that they know how it’s supposed to look, but no practical experience actually, you know, kissing? Yeah.

She would go in waves, all urgent energy, and then fall back into a sort of frozen lump.

After about five minutes of stumbling through the worst run at first base in the history of the game, she leaned back and asked “are you going to touch my breasts now?”

“I…would like to?”

“Oh good, that seems easier.”

Now…this should have been the point where I figured out what was up. Nope. My preconceived notion was too well formed, and my brain just wasn’t processing evidence to the contrary.

I unwound the shirt/wrap/thing she was wearing and found no bra beneath it. For some reason, my brain thought “sure, that makes sense”. Yeah.

I’ve had more interaction with a sack of cement. I’m not sure she’d planned past this point, as she just laid back on her mattress (sans comforter, just a fitted sheet and a pillow, no case) and “let it happen”. What she thought “it” entailed was a complete mystery.

Again, my brain should have totally figured out the score by now. In retrospect, I was an idiot. In the moment, I was ascribing everything to “yogi mysticism” and “complex sexual-spiritual focus” and other mumbo-jumbo justifications.

So…I touched her breasts. It was…it was even less sexy than it sounds.

After some length of time between five minutes and four-damn-millennia, she says “I need you to go further.”

So I make bigger circles on her breast.

“No. I meant, like, lower.”

I slide my hand down to the top of her pants.”

Yes,” she says. No enthusiasm, no enticement, no engagement. Just confirmation.

Without so much as wiggle to assist me, I pulled off her pants. At this point, even my stupid brain is starting to klaxon. “Do you want me to get undressed?” I ask.

“Oh!” She says, and she shifts up onto one arm and grabs my button-fly and yanks. She’s all graceless limbs, nervous fingers, and she’s biting her tongue trying to maneuver me out of my pants from a reclining position. She gets my pants to my knees and then stops. She looks around, and then she tumbles off the bed and dashed to the living room.

I’m still standing there, pants at my knees, trying to figure out what the hell is happening. She comes back with an arm-load of candles. Like, three dozen candles of various shapes and sizes. She sticks them on the floor around the room and then lights them with a cheapo Bic.

She slides back onto the bed and says “Slide those off. I’m ready now.”

My brain is asking “ready for…???” but my instincts take me to the bed.

I start kissing her again, and she’s just as bad as before. I climb on top of her and it’s like mounting a bag of concrete with bricks in it. The “yoga” build might be hot as hell, but it doesn’t leave much cushion for the points and edges.

“Do you have a thing?” she asks me.

My face displayed my confusion.

She held her thumb in the crook of her index finger joint like a conductor holding a baton. “A thing. A..condom.”

“Yes!” I said, with far more enthusiasm than I felt.

“You’ll need that now.”

I really wasn’t sure I would.

I had seen pictures of this girl folded into positions that Vishnu never intended, all strength and balance and poise…wielding her body like a beautiful instrument.

Here she was, barely above catatonic, and seemingly disengaged from the events happening to and around her.

“If this isn’t what you…”

Before I could even finish the sentence, panic filled her eyes.

“Yes. YES! This is what I want. Totally. Let’s do this. Please. Just do this.”

I had my doubts, but she was smoking hot, and I’d come here on a mission, so the game was on.

It. Was. Terrible.

It was like wrestling with a spastic eel. Flopping, flailing, cold and wet at the same time, eyes wide but unfocused.

The only time she made a sound was right at the outset. She was visibly uncomfortable, and she teared up. I tried to stop but she wrapped my chest and arms and tried to thrust against me from below.

I’d already had one woman cry during coitus, I wasn’t going to insult this one. So…we did the thing you do.

Afterwards, in what passed for afterglow, she said, very quietly, “thank you.”

“That’s…that’s not how that usually goes.”

“I’m sorry. I’m sure I can do it better.”

I had no response. I waited long enough to not feel like I was fleeing, but not so long as to make her think I was going to stay…and I fled.

As I was walking out of her door, her neighbor was in the alcove and he gave me the weirdest look. Which wouldn’t have been so bad except he was about 6’6″ and built like Jason Mammoa. Dude just turned around and went back inside his doorway without so much as a word.

The next time I talked to her it was over IM. After a while, I discovered that she really liked a guy in her building, but he was very vocal about “never dating a virgin again” and so she needed someone to punch her card. Why she picked a 30-year-old guy eight years her senior I don’t really know. I guess I looked non-threatening.

Anyway. All that build up, all that expectation on my part, and I got the only virgin yoga instructor in all the world.

As a postlude, I was invited to her wedding that Christmas. She married the tattoo artist with the shop next door. He was 6’6″ and built like Jason Mammoa. He gave me the EXACT same look when I sat down on her side of the church.

This story is actually why I stopped writing that book. Here’s the thing. I tell it for the laughs. It’s funny. I want people to laugh at me. But I feel like half the joke is on her. “Spastic eel” is unfair. It feels mean, even though she has assured me that the description matches her memory of these events.

So, to clear my own conscience, please let me tell you about the other two characters in this story. The first is a little girl who lost her parents in a car accident when she was nine-years-old. They both died in a head-on collision that also put her in the hospital for a month. She was ejected from the car, her parents were incinerated. She had at least four surgeries to repair the parts of her that were broken. Some things can be broken that surgeons simply can’t fully repair. When she got out of the hospital the only consistent thing in her life was Physical Therapy.

She went through eleven foster homes in seven years. She was emancipated at 16 and living on her own in state-subsidized housing. Her next-door neighbors for her last two years of high school were a string of revolving prostitutes and their drug pushing pimp. None of them had “a heart of gold”. She lived in utter terror.

And she went to physical therapy, where she learned about yoga.

She was smart, but she hated high school because she was gangly, and scarred from the accident and the surgeries, and the locker room was hell and the lunchroom was worse. She tested well, but homework was simply not something she could do while hiding in her room with the lights out. She got middling grades. Barely old enough to drive, she was terrified of adulthood and left with no option but to jump into the deep-end early.

She learned meditation at the YMCA. She believed that candles were the only link between her life and the flames that took parents, and they became the symbol of her life: trembling in the slightest breeze, beautiful in appearance, but painful when touched. She made candles a part of every important event in her life; birthdays, graduation, the day she passed her driver’s test, the day she was emancipated, any day that she wanted to feel connected. It was how she kept her life centered to those she’d lost as a nine-year-old.

After graduation, she got a job teaching yoga. Four years later she got a grant and a small business loan and bought a studio in small-town Oregon with an apartment upstairs. Her next door neighbor was a tattoo artist who looked like he could beat-down an entire biker gang and make them thank him for the lesson. He treated her nice. He smiled at her. They would talk on the sidewalk during lunch. He started bringing her lunch. He would regale her with stories of his conquests and his skills. He bragged he would “never touch another virgin” after one particularly funny story. She canceled classes that afternoon and just sat on her floor and cried.

She’d never made friends growing up, never been able to let people into her life, into her pain. She’d never so much as talked to a boy one on one in a meaningful way in her whole life. And the first man she’d ever connected with wouldn’t want her if he knew the truth.

She had to change her truth.

She signed up for eHarmony to get laid. Just…she needed to not be a virgin anymore. Like getting a driver’s license, it was just a classification. She just had to fix her label. Change her status. Do a task. Since eHarmony screened guys (or at least claimed they did) she figured that was better than taking out an ad in the penny saver or something (an idea that had actually crossed her mind and was quickly rejected).

She made a profile. She tried to “sexy” it up. She met a guy. He was nice. He was funny. He said all the right things and none of the weird shit the first ten guys had said. He was good with words, and he didn’t creep her out.

She waited an eternity for him to actually ask her out. They went to dinner. He wasn’t her type, not that she had a type, but he was barely taller than she was, and he looked like he could plank for about three seconds before farting and passing out (she’d seen it happen before). He could tell the connection was shaky and he tried to find a reason to leave. She knew this was the best shot she had if she didn’t want to settle for a creeper, so she soldiered on.

He offered to take her to his place, but she wanted this on her terms and in her space. She brought him back to her apartment. When he walked in the door she realized for the first time that she’d spent every dime she’d earned in the last three years on her studio, and not one dime on her home. She was mortified to look at it through someone else’s eyes. She thought he would bale out, but he gave her a smile and sat down on her bed.

She set to work. She cleared her mind, put herself into her meditation mode, and then she tried to do what she’d seen in those magazines behind the counter at the gas station that she looked at but couldn’t bring herself to buy.

She was so unbalanced that she almost forgot the candles. She had to pull them out of a storage box in the bathroom and light them with the lighter the last owners had left in the kitchen.

She started again. She did what she intended to do. He was nice. It was more physically uncomfortable than she had expected. Thankfully, he left after a relatively short eternity of fearful waiting and didn’t embarrass her in the morning when he found out there was nothing in the fridge to eat.

He pinged her again to say more nice things. She took a chance and talked to him again, even though she was afraid he’d transform into another creeper. He didn’t, he just talked. She took a chance and told him the truth. He was still nice, and eventually, he became a real friend.

That scary-ass tattoo artist? When he was a ten-year-old his dad got mugged on the streets of San Francisco, right in front of him. They broke his dad’s face up, stole his watch and his wallet, and left him in a gutter. There was nothing he could do. He swore he’d never be that powerless again. He lifted weights. He joined wrestling, football, any sport where someone crashes into someone else. Genetics were kind to him, he ended up huge.

But his real passion wasn’t weights or sports, it was drawing cartoons. He wanted to draw for the Sunday comics. His friends told him “art was for pussies or for getting pussies” so he decided to get pussies so he would have an excuse to keep doing art. He got a lot of pussies. But, it was like sports…it was a game. His heart was on his art desk.

He got a scholarship to Portland Art Institute, and he fell further and further in love with art. The more art he did, the more pussy he had to chase to justify it in his own mind. He knew that was dumb, but it worked. He got a job at a tattoo shop near the school. Two years later he owned half the shop. And a lot of tattoos.

He had a falling out with his partner so he moved down to Salem, Oregon and opened his own shop. A month later a SMOKING hot yoga chick moved into the shop and the apartment next door. She fascinated him. She was scared of everything and too strong to show it. They would talk on the sidewalk between classes and sessions. He started bringing her lunch because she never bought or brought her own. He started telling her stories and tried to impress her. She was so hot, he tried everything he could to sound smart enough or sexy enough or tough enough to impress her. She always just looked away with a half-smile on her lips.

One night his buddy brought a couple of girls over after closing down a bar. He tried to play the game, but his heart wasn’t in it. In that moment, he realized that his heart wasn’t on his art desk anymore, it was burning in the apartment next door. He literally jumped up off the couch, nearly knocking the girl next to him onto the floor, and he started dashing to her door to tell her exactly how he felt. Some strange guy was walking out of her door when he got there. He knew that look, he knew the game, he turned around and went back to his own door.

He made it a whole week before he couldn’t take it anymore and he walked into her studio after her morning class and just started saying everything…all at once…all jumbled up. She stopped him by kissing him. Forever. The longest kiss in ever and ever and ever.

They got married a few months later on the Winter Solstice in a room filled with candles, under a painting he’d made for her the night they’d become a couple. Art and Flame bound together.

They lost four babies in the second or third trimester before finally having a beautiful little girl. She looks like her mom. She’s tough like her daddy. She’s art and fire all bound together and made flesh.

These people aren’t jokes. And I don’t want to be the reason anyone laughs at their expense. So, for a long time, I stopped writing these stories…because they’re real, and I don’t own them exclusively. And I just didn’t know how to continue telling them the same way.

I’ve thought about it a lot, and I realize that the book I’m writing needs a pivot. At some point, the protagonist needs to transition from romantic/sexual relationships, and start coming to terms with the more basic human relationships. Use that pivot as a chance to tell these other stories about these other perspectives. To give the people he runs through a voice in defense of their realities, their truths.

This is the point when an author realizes that he’s been telling the wrong story; which means he gets a chance to tell the right one.

When I first posted this, someone said “my life has been dull in comparison” and it really hit me.

I don’t believe this is true. I don’t believe this is EVER true. What utterly fascinates me about humanity is that each and every person you meet has a deep, complex, personal story burning deep at the heart of them. We all wear armor, and masks, and disguises; but within us is a story so passionate and personal that sometimes even we can’t see it inside of ourselves. We see the trees, we can’t see that we’re an ever-expanding forest.

I think the greatest gift of a storyteller isn’t crafting fiction (not that I’m knocking on Hemingway or Gaiman or Sanderson or whoever), it’s telling a truth in a meaningful way. The only truth I own is my own, so I tell it the best that I can. I’ve told other people’s truths, and that has been some of the most…important writing and storytelling I’ve ever done.

To tell someone’s story back to them in a way they’d never seen it…with a voice that speaks their truth with dignity and philios, with compassion and respect. To be remembered, to be known, is the great motivator of the soul, the fire that burns at the heart of ego. I have done nothing in my life so important as to have remembered and to have known people, and to have shared that with them and with others.

I wish I could write fiction half as well as I can write a truth. Some gifts simply aren’t given, and I’m slowly becoming far more comfortable with the limitations I’ve received.

But, I swear to you, each and every one of you, on my faith in gravity and belief that people are more than the sum of their genetics, that your story is every bit as interesting as any other. It may be that you’ve just not heard it told the best way yet.

[Word Count: 3800]

One thought on “Storytelling is basically just art, flame, and spastic eels until the truth comes through.

  1. Now sure how I missed this, but it’s amazing.

    I’m realizing the same thing. I want to write fiction, but it’s hard for me, and I don’t feel like I can paint the same, 3-D picture with it like I can with creative nonfiction. Maybe the world needs more of creative nonfiction in it, and that doesn’t make us any less of a writer.

    What a fantastic ending to the story <3

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