Thursday, December 20, 2007

Lev Olsen: I Would Like a Large Lobster

Author's Note: This is an excerpt from the novel You Were Never Lovelier. It is not about "sexual freedom" per se -- but it does touch on the related issues "do I like this guy?" and "why am I acting like such a jerk?"

Eric often asked his friend Jasper for advice in affairs of the heart. Jasper’s job as a professor of nineteenth-century literature gave him a surprisingly helpful perspective on modern love. Today, since the crisis was particularly severe, Eric had invited Jasper to lunch at an expensive restaurant. (It was possible to expense such lunches, since he was seeking professional advice.)

"Yesterday I met someone who I haven't seen in a long time. But you won't understand unless I tell you the back story." Eric leaned across the table and gave Jasper a puzzled look. "That's a concept I picked up from you -- ‘back story.’ Does it mean what I think it means?"

"Back story is what you have on soap operas," Jasper explained. "It's what happened to the characters before they appeared on the show. Or it can mean what happened on the show five or ten years ago."

"Well, this was more like that," said Eric. "It was in high school. You didn't know me in high school. I was different then. Thank you," he said to the waiter, who'd brought him a glass of beer. "I wasn't as, you know, as I am now."

"As attractive?"

"Mmmm," said Eric. "Anyway, I didn't have many friends and the other guys were cruel to me. They hated me. There was this one guy, Paolo Gregory. He used to -- he used to beat me up."

Jasper picked up his knife and fork. "The bastard!" he said. "But he can't get away with that any more. Where is he? I'll get him for you!"

Eric gave a rueful smile. "You don’t have to do that," he said. "But thank you." Their food arrived. Jasper began to cut up his steak.

"I saw him yesterday, at the gym," said Eric. "He hadn't changed at all. Maybe he put on a little weight," he reflected. "And could he be taller? Is that possible? Anyway, he recognized me too and at first I thought I'd just pretend not to know who he was. But that seemed stupid -- who could forget him? And besides, just being rude was too good for him."

"I agree," said Jasper.

"So I said, 'Paolo! You haven't changed a bit! Do you still beat people up?"

"That was quick thinking."

"Was it? It just kind of popped out." Eric stopped chewing and looked away as if remembering the scene.

"What happened then?"

"He turned red. I guess people with red hair must blush very easily. It happened slowly though. He slowly turned redder and redder. It was like it was sinking in. He always was dumb," said Eric vehemently. "A stupid person. He thinks slowly.”

“Did you feel better -- when he turned red, I mean?”

"Strangely, no. Anyway, then he said, 'I'm sorry about that. I wanted to tell you I'm sorry.' Apparently it had been on his mind all these years, or that’s what he wanted me to believe. He asked me if I could forgive him."

"What did you say?"

"I said yes. But I don't forgive him, of course. I just said that."

"Go on.”

"Well, then he was like, what are you doing? Where do you work? Where do you live? Again, so stupid! Did I need that?"

"Couldn't you get away?"

"You don't understand. I wanted to pay him back. I mean, turning red was just not enough. Didn't I turn red when he tried to strangle me with that scarf? So I was thinking, what can I do to get back at him, while we were having this very boring conversation. He told me where he went to college. He told me about his job. Why did he think I would be interested in that? Then it clicked. I saw what was behind it all."

"He liked you," said Jasper.

"Very good!" said Eric. He seemed surprised. "How did you guess?"

"Oh, well," Jasper said. "It’s like in Pride and Prejudice. Why does Mr. Darcy keep staring at me? I just don’t understand why he keeps staring at me. Elizabeth can’t figure it out.”

“Did Mr. Darcy give Elizabeth a knuckle sandwich?” asked Eric.

“No,” said Jasper. “Not really. Anyway, not in the version we teach at Columbia.”

“Oh, well, that’s a side issue.”

“Do you think Paolo liked you all along, and that’s why he gave you a knuckle sandwich -- I mean, why he acted the way he did?”

"Well, maybe. But I secretly liked guys then too, and I never caused them intense physical pain! I never even tried! Paolo was such a moron -- a very strong moron." Eric reflected. "I suppose this kind of thing must happen all the time. Anyway, I made short work of him. I said, would you like to go out with me on Friday? He blushed again!" Eric said scornfully. He cast his eyes down to his empty plate.

"Did he say yes?"

"Of course," said Eric. His voice had gone dull. "What do you think I should do with him?”

"Well, you know, we are supposed to forgive people," said Jasper. “George Eliot is very clear about that, and so is Charlotte Brontë -- sort of.”

Eric took some French fries from Jasper’s plate. "I can't do it," he said. "I can't forgive him -- instead, I want to hurt him as much as possible. How can I do it?"

"You know, I don't think I can help you with that.”

"Please!" said Eric. "I know it's wrong, but he made me very unhappy once. He made me feel like I was nothing! This is the only way I'll ever feel better about that time, if I get some sort of satisfying revenge."

"I'm sorry," Jasper said. He thought for a while. Something occurred to him. "Why did you come to me for advice? Did you think we specialized in revenge in graduate school? Because we didn’t."

"But you've read all those books," said Eric. "I want the kind of clever idea that people don't do in real life but write books about instead. But I really want to do it."

"Oh," Jasper said. "Well, you could arrange to meet him somewhere and then stand him up and watch him through a window. I read about that somewhere -- or maybe it was in a movie." Eric shook his head dismissively. "You weren't thinking along the lines of an S/M club?" Eric nodded happily. "I don't think that's a good idea." Eric looked regretful. "Here's one I got from the Carol Burnett show. You take him to a restaurant and you publicly humiliate him." Jasper raised his voice. "Ladieeees and gentlemen! THIS MAN used to beat me up as a child! He tried to strangle me! He broke one of my ribs! He broke my nose! He knocked out my teeth! And now he invites me out to lunch -- and says all those beautiful words to me!"

"SHUT UP!" hissed Eric. His ears had turned pink. From the other tables, people regarded them with pleased and happy expressions. "Good for you, dear!" said an elderly lady.

"Let's get out of here!" said Eric. He fled from the room. The bill was paid in the safety of the lobby. Then Eric and Jasper were outside on the street.

"That was humiliating."

"I'm sorry," Jasper said. "That was my lecture voice."

"No, that was great!" said Eric. "I mean, I didn't even break your nose, and I still feel like dirt. Public humiliation is very powerful."

"Yes, but --"

"It will destroy Paolo. What restaurant should I pick?"

"‘21’?" Jasper suggested.

"Perfect!"

Paolo was sitting at a table at “21.” He wasn’t entirely comfortable. Was he wearing the right thing? Most of the men were wearing suits. But he didn’t think he looked right in a suit -- it made him seem blocky and clumsy. And turtlenecks, of course, made him look like he had no neck. Paolo was surprised that anyone wore them at all, ever. But perhaps Eric would look good in a turtleneck, he reflected.

It had been Eric’s idea to eat at this restaurant. Looking at the prices on the menu made Paolo feel more uneasy than before, but if he ordered with care the meal would fit in his budget. He was still paying off his loans from film school. Eric, of course, had that complicated job on Wall Street and could afford anything. Paolo worked as a cameraman and preferred to cook for himself anyway. He’d offered to cook Eric a three-course dinner, including dessert, but although Eric’s eyes had shown a momentary gleam at the mention of baked Alaska, he’d called later to insist on meeting at this restaurant.

No doubt they would split the bill down the middle, as a sign they were grown up now. Everything would be fine. Unless Eric ordered something extremely expensive.... And that could easily happen, given his love of eating. Paolo remembered once watching him eat an ice cream bar in the school cafeteria -- first he nibbled off the chocolate coating, and then he licked away the vanilla ice cream which had begun to melt. It got all over his fingers and he licked them too. Paolo remembered how sticky and uncomfortable this spectacle had made him. Eric had been sitting alone at the end of a table, and Paolo couldn’t take his eyes off him. It was strange how well Paolo remembered this -- that must have been where he got the idea of baked Alaska.

These thoughts occupied Paolo for a long time, and it wasn’t until the waiter asked him if he wanted to order something that he realized that Eric was very late. Then he began to worry.

At eight o'clock, the time he'd agreed to meet Paolo at the restaurant, Eric was lying on his back on the floor of his apartment. He was concentrating deeply, with his eyes shut.

"Ladies and gentlemen, THIS MAN abused me as a child. He called me names, he hit me, he kicked me, he did even more unspeakable things to me. What unspeakable things? Never mind. And now he has the gall to invite me to dinner at this romantic restaurant. And something about beautiful words -- oh yeah, he said all those beautiful words to me." (This wasn't true, however.) "Ladies and gentleman, I'm sure you will join me in spirit as I hit THIS MAN -- whose name is Paolo Gregory, by the way, and who works for the soap opera The Guiding Light -- as I hit THIS MAN in the face with a chocolate cream pie. Whomp!"

Eric rolled over onto his stomach. "It's very humiliating," he said in a softer voice. "Ladies and gentlemen, THIS MAN punched me, kicked me and painted all over my face with acrylic paints. No, that sounds stupid. But they wouldn't come off! I had to go home in a taxi!" He sighed. "He called me ugly names -- fag, homo, cocksucker. Let me say that more clearly: cock-suck-er. This is very humiliating, isn't it? He even called me a lesbian, which wasn't exactly on the mark." Eric said this more brightly. "But he was always stupid. He used to ask me to give him the answers for homework. Why would I do that? Of course, I gave him the wrong answers, but he never seemed to notice.... Maybe he thought I was as dumb as he was!" This was said in a voice of shock. "Did he think I was going to kiss and make up? Yelch! Blech, blech, blech, phooey!"

Eric's cat walked over to Eric, sniffed him and climbed onto the back of his neck. Eric rolled over and sat up. "Mr. Whiskers!" said Eric, cradling the cat in his arms. "Did I upset you?" he asked. "Did I upset you? Did my big, bad voice frighten you? Are you humiliated?" Mr. Whiskers blinked comfortably. Eric kissed him on the nose. "You don't have to go to the horrible restaurant," he whispered. "But I'll tell you what -- I'll order something for you, and bring it home in a doggie bag. Would you like that? Would you like a little doggie to eat?" Mr. Whiskers purred. "You good cat!" said Eric. "Good, good cat. I'll bring you home a large lobster. I know what you like. A large lobster -- oh my God, look at the time!" he said, standing up. "Sorry!" he said to Mr. Whiskers, who had to jump off suddenly. "It's just that if I don't hurry he won't still be there. And we wouldn't want that, would we?"

Eric rushed out and caught a taxi. Being in a hurry calmed him, and he wasn't concerned anymore about what he would say. Besides, he loved taxis. They gave him a luxurious feeling. He never fastened his seat belt, despite anything the famous New Yorkers said in their recorded safety messages.

At the restaurant Eric spotted Paolo right away. "Oh good, you're still here," he said by way of acknowledgment of his tardiness. But this was what he always said -- it wasn't aimed specifically at Paolo. He unfolded his napkin with a flourish and carefully looked Paolo up and down, then smiled as if satisfied with something. "You look handsome," he said maliciously.

"What happened to you?" asked Paolo.

Eric opened his mouth to invent an extenuating circumstance. Then he reflected that since Paolo didn't merit any extenuation, the unvarnished truth would do even better. "I was talking to my cat and I lost track of the time." Meanwhile Paolo was thinking how attractive Eric looked, especially as he held his mouth open trying to think of what to say, and his irritation and anxiety melted away.

"You have a cat? I have a dog. He's named Pumpernickel."

Eric hated dogs. He wrinkled his nose to indicate this, and then remembered that there was no reason not to be even more explicit.

"I hate dogs," he said.

"You hate dogs? How can you hate dogs? Pumpernickel is an English bulldog. I bet you couldn't hate him if you met him."

I bet I could though, thought Eric. And again: "I'm sure I would if I met him," said Eric happily.

Paolo made no reply, however, and only sat staring at Eric with a surprised and wounded look on his face. The look and the silence began to make Eric uncomfortable. The thought of Mr. Whiskers sprang unbidden to his mind, and he opened the menu to search for lobster. There it was, Maine Lobster, $69. He closed the menu and looked up. Paolo was looking right at him, still with exactly the same expression. He's so slow, thought Eric. Still, this wasn't the way he'd expected things to be. He was forced to say something to mitigate the attack on Paolo's dog.

"I have a pathological fear of dogs, ever since I was attacked by a dog in early childhood. The larger the dog, the more pathological the fear."

This seemed to satisfy Paolo and the troublesome expression went away. Still, if he had any sense, he'd remember that I was attacked by him in late childhood, and that I ought to have a pathological fear of him, too, thought Eric.

The waiter came to take their order, but Eric couldn't concentrate because of a sudden disturbing thought. Maybe I do have a pathological fear of him -- maybe he's a psychopath! Maybe tomorrow morning they'll find me in a box somewhere! If that happens, who will take care of Mr. Whiskers?

"I'll have the Waldorf salad -- as a main course," explained Paolo unnecessarily. His trusting appeal to the waiter disarmed Eric's suspicions. These days, Paolo is nothing but a harmless vegetarian, Eric thought.

"I would like a large lobster."

"Yes, certainly. Would you like anything to start?"

Eric said no. He wanted to get to dessert as quickly as possible. He wasn't sure he was enjoying himself yet.

Eric looks uncomfortable, thought Paolo. Maybe he can't think of anything to talk about. Maybe he's nervous. "Tell me more about your cat," he suggested. "What's his name?"

"Mr. Whiskers?" Eric didn't want to talk about Mr. Whiskers. "He has a wasting disease. It's a very painful subject for me."

"I'm sorry!" said Paolo. He looked shocked. Now he's going to tell me all about someone he knows who has a much worse wasting disease, thought Eric. Probably a close relative. His eyes darted uncomfortably around the restaurant.

"That must be very sad for you," said Paolo. "I hope you have a good vet. I could find out the name of someone at the Humane Society who once helped a friend of mine. She had to put her cat to sleep. Some vets don't like to do that and just cut you off when they've reached the point where they can't do anything more for you."

Eric had two responses to this speech. The first was that Paolo seemed miraculously to have become a somewhat sensitive person these days. The second was that Paolo wanted to recommend someone to put Mr. Whiskers to sleep! Mr. Whiskers was perfectly healthy. Paolo hadn't changed at all. Eric went with the first thought.

"I didn't expect you to be so understanding," he said.

"Well, I've changed a lot since you used to know me," said Paolo with relief, as if he'd been looking for an opportunity to put this point across. Eric seemed to remember he'd said something like that before. Now he's going to tell me how much his life has changed since he came out, thought Eric. We have to talk about something else.

Paolo was wondering how he could explain to Eric that he'd become a much happier person, all because he'd summoned the courage to finally come out. Eric looked fixedly at him and said, "Is your industry a gay-friendly place to work? The soap opera industry, I mean. Tell me more about your job."

Paolo gave a sigh of relief. "Oh yeah, I'm completely out at work," he said. "It's a very gay-friendly place. It's just like the theater world, except they have jobs for cameramen -- they have no cameras in the theater."

"Duh," thought Eric. This dinner was turning out to be an unusually draining experience, and he couldn't wait for the food to come.

"In fact, a lot of the actors on the show are out -- although not to the soap press or to the public, obviously, but in their regular life."

"Oh, you don't need to tell me that," said Eric. "I've dated several soap actors."

"Really?" asked Paolo. "Which ones?"

"That's none of your business!" snapped Eric. In fact, he was aware that he'd been stretching the truth slightly -- although Philip certainly had had a part of five lines or less, and he didn't think Philip was the only one.

“Sorry,” said Paolo. “I just thought I might know them.” Eric was chewing stonily on a dinner roll, and it did seem to Paolo as if he had been too nosy. “I watch all the shows, not just my own, so I know who everyone is.” Eric continued to chew silently. “I watch them for the camera-work, not because of the stories.”

"Oh, don't worry about it," said Eric. He was conscious of having made a slight mis-statement, and decided to clear it up so that when the time for public humiliation came, he would be confident he was one hundred per cent in the right. "Philip's role was very small. I could probably say it all for you right now. He practiced it with me a hundred times. I can't remember which show it was for, only the part about not moving the body until the ambulance comes."

"That could be any show," agreed Paolo. He was relieved that Eric had opened up a little and refrained from asking anything more about Philip. "I've shot that scene myself more than once."

"Yes, I keep hearing how the shows are all becoming the same and they’re all in decline," said Eric. "Especially The Guiding Light," he added in case he was being too nice. Since Paolo in fact worked on another show entirely, this rider meant nothing to him and he nodded happily. The food came and they began eating, more at ease than they'd been since the dinner began.

"Are you going to finish your lobster?" asked Paolo.

"It's for my cat," said Eric. He spread his fingers over the plate in a protective gesture. "You can't have it!"

"I was just asking," said Paolo mildly. Eric relaxed. After all, Paolo couldn't take the lobster away by force -- not in a place like ‘21.’

"So Mr. Whiskers likes lobster?"

"Yes, he does," said Eric. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously. "How did you know that?"

"I made an informed guess," said Paolo. "Mr. Whiskers is a good name for a cat. Was it important for you to have a boy cat?"

"No, not really," said Eric. "Well, actually, yes, it was very important," he confessed. There, I've gone and shown him a little piece of my heart, he thought. Now I can humiliate him. "Waiter!" he called. "Can we order dessert?"

He’ll probably get a chocolate dessert, thought Paolo. And he did. Paolo politely declined dessert. "I knew you would order something chocolate," he said when the waiter left.

Eric toyed with his dessert fork. "You knew that?" he asked.

"Well, I guessed. You always liked chocolate in school," Paolo said.

"I was hardly the only one," said Eric darkly. "You think you know all about me, don't you?"

"No, I don't think that," said Paolo. "Why would I ask you out to dinner if I thought that? I could just take you out of my mind and play with you."

"Yuck!" said Eric.

“I’m sorry, that came out wrong,” said Paolo in some confusion.

“Paolo?” asked Eric, in a changed voice. He paused.

“Yes?” asked Paolo.

“This is a little difficult for me,” confessed Eric.

“Go ahead,” said Paolo in an encouraging voice. “What is it?”

"I'm going to say something to you, and then when I've finished, I'm going to hit you in the face with the chocolate surprise."

Paolo blinked. He hadn't expected that.

"I'm perfectly safe with all these fine diners around me," said Eric. "You won't dare retaliate, brutal though you are, and then I'm going to sweep out in a dramatic finish and you'll never see me again."

"This is your revenge?" asked Paolo.

"Yes!" said Eric. His face was flushed. "You were the blight of my mid-teens. You ruined my life! For years, I've hated you. No one will blame me for what I'm about to do."

"But I already apologized for all that!" said Paolo. "You said you forgave me."

"I lied!" said Eric.

A momentary hush fell over the restaurant. Their waiter appeared, carrying a large chocolate confection in a dessert glass. It was topped by a tower of whipped cream and a chocolate cookie.

"Your chocolate surprise," said the waiter, putting it in the exact center of the table. He had brought two spoons.

Eric was temporarily distracted by the whipped cream. He touched the top of the dessert with his forefinger, and absently licked it clean.

"Well, if you have to do it, go ahead," said Paolo. "I guess I deserve it."

"What if I want to eat some of it first?" asked Eric. "You think this is all for you, but it's my dessert, not yours."

He picked up his spoon. Paolo did the same.

"Put that spoon down!" hissed Eric.

"But I'm hungry," said Paolo reasonably. "My Waldorf salad wasn't big enough."

Eric did not deign to reply. He tasted a spoonful of the chocolate surprise and closed his eyes thoughtfully. Paolo watched him closely, his hunger forgotten. So far this was the only part of the dinner he'd really enjoyed. He wanted it to last as long as possible, especially if the sequel was going to be a humiliating chocolate slap in the face.

Meanwhile Eric was wondering what to do. When he remembered how difficult his speech had been during the dress rehearsal, he doubted he'd be able to get through it now. Also, he was strangely reluctant to waste this tasty dessert on Paolo. Part of him just wanted to go home and go to bed. He opened his eyes. Paolo was gazing at him with a fond expression which made him sick to his stomach.

"Well, go ahead, if you want to," said Paolo. "I'm ready for the chocolate surprise. Then we can be friends."

Eric coughed and took a gulp of ice water. "You don't understand," he said in a hoarse voice. "Maybe you thought I said I hated you in a nice way, but I didn't. Maybe you've forgotten what you did to me, but I haven't."

Paolo stirred uncomfortably.

"I haven't forgotten," he said.

"That day on the school roof in gym, when I was wearing those stupid blue gym shorts and you kicked my legs with your sneakers till they were scuffed all over? You wanted to see the pattern I guess -- that was my skin!"

"Look, I'm sorry about that," Paolo interrupted.

"And the words you called me -- some of them completely inaccurate, I might add," said Eric, his face flushed. "And do you remember those acrylic paints? And what about that time you stuck a popsicle stick down my throat so I vomited in English class -- Ms. Post blamed me!"

"Don't go on," said Paolo. "I'd take all that back if I could, don't you think I would?"

"I don't care!" said Eric. "It's too late now. Was there anything else? I'm forgetting something."

"Please!" said Paolo.

Eric stood up. "You really weren't worth this," he said. "I don't feel better at all. A friend of mine warned me that this was a mistake, but I didn't believe him. I guess maybe I really am the pathetic person you take me for."

"Wait!" said Paolo. "It's not like that --"

Eric put on his coat. "I don't want to see you again," he said shortly. He left the table. Paolo bit his thumb in a gesture of frustration. Eric paused halfway across the room and returned to take table. "I forgot this," he said, picking up the dessert glass and dumping the half-eaten contents in Paolo's lap. "He deserved it," he announced to the astonished lookers-on at the surrounding tables.

After Eric left, Paolo sat in silence until their waiter thoughtfully brought over a fresh glass of water and three napkins. "I'm sorry about this," he told Paolo. "I hope it won't affect your opinion of the restaurant. Please come back another time -- with someone with better manners, I hope."

"Thank you," said Paolo mechanically.

The waiter placed a neatly wrapped package on the side of the table. "This is your friend's lobster," he explained. He put the bill down next to it. "I didn't charge you for dessert."

©Lev Olsen. Used by permission.


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