My boss at the healing center says I remind her of her daughter, who fundraises for the Opera. Before I sat at this white reception desk in Beverly Hills, I ran around town raising money for the LGBTQ center. I don’t tell my boss that the job incited daily panic attacks or that I quickly became disillusioned with the corporate gays.
At the clinic, it’s just the doctor, the patients and I. We don’t play music in the waiting room and the sun comes in at a nice angle. Patients like to take selfies with the jade Buddha that sits on my desk beside the bathroom keys. I’m mostly a receptionist, but am also trained to give detailed instructions on what patients should and shouldn’t eat given the doctor’s diagnosis, and administer high powered therapy laser treatments.
I meet my boss’s daughter when she comes on her lunch break to be treated for anxiety.
“Nice to see you, Mickey,” she says to me in a voice cavernous with air. I recognize this practiced vocal clarity from my old job, and wonder if she has had to learn it. Or perhaps we are nothing alike.
I want to fall in love. I am ready. I am used to going on dates with other goals, so I don’t know how to transition. My only strategy to funnel my experiences into love is to be extremely nice and talk more about life things like my job and my apartment, instead of things that turn me on like dream analysis, food and possible cities hidden within the hills. I am not sure if kind and boring will attract the woman I want to meet, but I don’t feel I have other cards to play. Usually I am good and don’t let myself consider whether or not I deserve these women.
Two friends make back-to-back appointments so one can watch the other’s newborn. They arrive with the baby wrapped in an untouchable pink blanket, placed in the center of the padded buggy, like a translucent piece of fish in the middle of a large white plate.
“You can take a picture,” says the lady whose baby it is not. I take out my phone to appease her.
While the mother gets a chiropractic adjustment, the friend insists on getting her laser therapy. We position the buggy in the corner of the treatment room so there is no chance for the baby to sneak a stare at the laser beam. The woman takes her top off and drops her bra strap down her arm for me to laser her shoulder and scars.
“I have such baby fever, now,” she says.
“Me too,” I say, admitting my desire to touch the pink bundle, for it to be mine.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” she says.
My only strategy to funnel my experiences into love is to be extremely nice and talk more about life things like my job and my apartment, instead of things that turn me on like dream analysis, food and possible cities hidden within the hills.
I guide the laser down a rippling scar the length of her sternum. Heart surgery saved her life when she was four months old.
“I wish the laser would make it disappear,” she says, when I don’t answer. “Then, I could wear low necklines to the awards shows. Did you watch the Academy Awards? I am against sexism in Hollywood of course, but these women in black wore the most revealing dresses. I thought they were making a point against being sexualized?”
I don’t explain feminism to her and will never tell her I date women, because I am ironing her chest and her nipple keeps popping out of her bra. She trusts me with her nipple because she thinks I could have a boyfriend.
The few reasons a woman might imagine me with a boyfriend:
My eyelashes are long, dark and plentiful.
My short hair is extremely shiny and naturally highlighted, as if rich with enviable product and the guide of an expensive stylist.
I have very large breasts.
I cannot imagine my boss using the term self-love, though she prescribes flower essences for emotional healing. They are in small pink bottles with names like CLR-MND and ANGR-RLS. When I think of dissolving the slippery rock of shame that sits heavy at my core, I think of that phrase: self-love. I am not sure what to do with it.
After work, I hover in the parking lane by my apartment, blinkers on, until 7:00 pm when it is legal to park there. The colors in the sky change as I wait. Then, I go inside to soak my feet in Epson salts and wonder if I can stomach a microwaved sweet potato for dinner.
Later that night, a woman on a dating app with only one magenta-lit photo, messages me: You seem very confident. Do you think you could top me?
“So you’re a comedian?” Jess asks as begin hiking up the dusty canyon. She has beach waves in her hair and wears black leggings that shine synthetically, with a croptop that I expect to have something rainbow on it. I could tell from her dating profile that she likely loves Pride, despite the cops and capitalism. While swiping, I was also so unsure of my “type” that I wondered if something about our chemistry would make me ditch my ethics and march in a parade with her someday.
“I am,” I say. “It’s strange, I’m not funny in everyday life and have performance anxiety, but people seem to like my stuff.” I am trying to honest, these days, and to cut any hopes she has of a hilarious mate. I omit that I haven’t performed in months because I fear that self-deprecating humor is a passing, oversaturated trend.
“I bet you’re funny,” she says, bumping my shoulder with hers. She smiles at me with heavy sex eyes, like her eyelashes are leaden, then zigzags up the hill in front of me. It seems she’s decided already that she likes me, so doesn’t care to figure it out. She must assume I’m some experienced butch who has exes even hotter than her.
Jess has a lot of energy and keeps our conversation going, but is also comfortable with silences as we climb the hill. Slivers of cool air cut through as the sun goes down. She invites me over to her apartment and onto her couch, where she sits on my lap and plays with my hair. Her nails send shivers down my spine. She puts my hands on her thighs and smiles at her living room.
She is quieter during sex than I expect. We move to her silky bed, where I go down on her for a while. Then she kisses me and rolls towards the window. She pulls my arm across her body and holds my hand by her chest. I feel a lot of emotions coming off of her. I contemplate the right words to break our silence. I trace our encounter in my head, trying to remember if I took her shirt off or if she did. I want to ask her if she’s ok, but then her fingers loosen and I realize she’s asleep. I remain awake in her bed, holding her limp hand, until the sun starts to come up.
“I’m sorry if I was weird,” she texts me later. “I’m going through a breakup. I liked you in my bed, tho. Keep me in mind ;))).”
On the massage table, Jolene lifts her knees obediently. I place a bolster there to relieve her lower back the pressure of lying down. She’s an actress with delicate feet and wavy yellow toenail fungus. Many people have it, but on her you ask, how did this happen?
“I took my polish off so the treatment might be more effective,” she says. She confuses me because she often flirts with me, but also loves to discuss unattractive bodily issues. Once, she called the office, asked how my week was going and said in a smiling voice that she was very happy to hear it was going well. Then, she asked me to tell the doctor she has been having a spiking pain around her anus before she defecates.
“Tell me if it gets too hot,” I say.
I begin to move the laser’s red beam from toenail to toenail and Jolene begins to talk about her boyfriend again. I wonder if she is reminding herself or me.
“My boyfriend’s looking for a new job,” she says. “He is a translator. He wants me to move to the Westside, but I don’t know. His house is surrounded by so many fewer trees than my house.”
“There are no wooded areas like yours in the middle of West LA,” I say. I am embarrassed at my familiarity, but with age, I’ve gotten good at swallowing a blush.
I want to ask her if she’s ok, but then her fingers loosen and I realize she’s asleep. I remain awake in her bed, holding her limp hand, until the sun starts to come up.
I am confused – Mallory is a teacher, but suggests an award-winning French restaurant for first date brunch. She gets a table in the garden. I recognize her from the back via her wide shoulders and the slope of dark curly hair between them. Her shiny calves stick out under her patio chair. I see they are beginning to burn in the sun. I want to press a finger to them, not in a sexual way. She is a serious woman and orders only a croissant. I’m surprised by the playful way she picks it apart with her fingers, seeming to delight in all the layers. While she nibbles flakes, she asks me a long trail of questions that lead my brain away from me. I can only fill pauses with, What about you?, which does not impress her. She does so much conversational work that I feel obligated to pay. Picking up her bag from the ground, she presses her own finger to her calf five times in a circle to make a pale daisy shape. This makes me wonder if I could love her, but I feel I’ve already lost my chance.
I arrive at work early to laser the chest of a man with costochondritis, which I think is a tightening of the muscles around the heart that sometimes moves into the diaphragm. He is well dressed, smaller than his wife and always has a freshly shaved chest. I try to move the laser with the grain of his chest hair. He is quiet while I work, his presence so forgettable.
I’ve been going back to this image: Shannon and I drunk in my college bedroom. We laid for a long time in the dark, tension buzzing in the space between us. I know that crushes can be one-sided, but can palpable tension be? When I finally touched her hip with a finger, pretending to roll over in my sleep, she was much closer than she had been when first we landed there. I don’t remember meeting her eyes. I do remember I was too shy to ask her if it was OK.
The man under my beam squeaks. I had held the laser for a second too long in one spot. He is rubbing his chest and scowling at me.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “It’s just the sensation of heat in your tissues, not a surface burn. It will go right away.”
My legs feel weak, but I leave the room quickly before he can reach for his shirt.
I’ve started getting ads on social media for a campy gay cruise: lesbians layered on white decks, pool water swaying at their feet. Maybe the sheer act of buying a ticket for a trip like this, putting so much energy into packing the right clothes and planning to slather myself with the appropriate intensity of SPF is humiliating enough to make the future bright. The decision to wear flip-flops, for god’s sake. Maybe I could even get a pedicure. The thought of toenails with tiny suns or anchors on them should make me laugh, but instead makes me nauseous.
Perhaps I could get hired to do comedy on a lesbian cruise. I’d make bawdy friends, old dykes buoyed by U-Haul jokes. In the air-conditioned ballroom of a lesbian cruise, there would be no chance of Shannon Wilder taking a seat in the back, waiting until my set was over to confront me.
It has been windy, lately, the Santa Ana’s picking up in the night. There is a tall bush outside of my living room whose eye-shaped leaves bat against the window. Like a spirited young person in a crowd who does not speak the crowd’s language, they tap a shoulder and whisper, tug a sleeve and speak softly, until someone tries to understand. They are not trying to ask for help or directions, but to point out a butterfly or a curious looking person ahead. They want to connect for a brief moment. They need you and know that you need them.
I need them – these insistent leaves. I could care less about the outer branches that dance around independently, so at peace with themselves they appear lazy. I eat pasta with olive oil and salt on the couch, smiling at the glass-mashing leaves like I imagine they want to be smiled at. Even in this assumption, I feel like a creep by the time I am wiping my bowl with my last noodle.