Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Brush with Death

The other weekend my friend modeled in a hair salon and runway show that took place in downtown Columbus. Only in its second year, the show is a Midwestern attempt at metropolitan style. It was like a casino at first glance, an impression of glitz and glamor but in reality a cheap imitation.

But that didn't make it any less entertaining, each salon parading with a theme, giant hoops and cascades of hair, costumes both demure and deranged, a parade of skin and hair and human ingenuity with pulsing music and an energetic crowd.

The drinks weren't bad either.

The event happened to take place in the same downtown hotel where an ex bartends, but he wasn't working that night, which really took from my potential to nod to my friend and say something clever like, "I used to fuck that bartender and I totally stiffed him on the tip."

The salon my friend was representing won the competition, and after a brief celebration in the lobby, moved the party to a nearby nightclub. The salon my friend worked with chose a life and death theme, which involved intense makeup on their subjects. Some faces chalk white, others painted like skulls, others with torn cheeks exposing muscle and mandibles, all with beautiful, precisely sculpted hair. It seemed an appropriate theme for a world that was expecting the apocalypse in a few weeks' time.

The after party was in a dark room with velvety curtains and mirrors on the walls. Champagne flutes were tossed around to stylists and the living dead that represented them. I took part in the appropriate hand-shaking and mingling and shot-taking that comes with such celebrations.

Then I had an idea.

I have to take one of these dead people home.

Not only because they were, makeup or not, downright gorgeous, but because it would be a story to tell. It didn't even matter which one as long as I could describe pasty-white makeup smeared around lips. I could write about him bringing death to my lips and me bringing life to his. I could describe my bed as a coffin as the morning light crept through my blinds, and compose a scene in intricate detail of me quickly whisking away the dead before the light burnt through the remains of his soul and he turned to dust in my arms.

As my most recent drink carefully swirled these ideas around in my head, my friend thanked me for coming to see her and asked me if I wanted a ride home. It was barely past midnight.

Midnight, midnight, ghosts come out at midnight... Soft echoes from childhood clashed with modern, metallic music that left the walls throbbing.

I accepted my friend's offer. Because I didn't want to sleep with Death, I wanted to tell the story of sleeping with Death. It's the line between fiction and reality that's becoming less blurred but more difficult to walk as time passes. The previous haziness had given me, while unstable, still existent stepping room. In its new definition it's become more thread-like, requiring greater finesse and control to travel safely.

I thanked my friend for the ride home and stayed up entirely too late drinking cheap beer and snacking on pretzels. I sat in the soft glow of my laptop in a drunken haze writing the fictional prose I've been neglecting.

I shouldn't be surprised that I looked like Death in the morning.

Monday, May 16, 2011


It’s July of 2009.

In the first few hours of meeting her, you discover that her name is Inez and that she’s a veterinary student. Even though you’re gay and have already done the dating that comes with it, there’s something about the way she moves that draws you to her, rough and abrasive but somehow eloquent and smooth. You have a hard time describing things properly while your blood is trying to balance rum and Darvocet and decide which organs to rush to. So instead of using words to describe it, you just hold yourself against her and acknowledge that something feels right. Right works. Right is a small word, a simple word that doesn’t require thought or reason.

After you kiss, you whisper, “I’m gay.” You aren’t attempting to stop her. You just want her to know.

She grabs you by the testicles and says, “Not tonight.”

You fuck her like you’ve never heard the word “homosexuality.”


A few weeks pass and you realize you spend every day with her. You remind yourself you’re gay and wonder why the female body doesn’t interest you but hers does. You think of geometry, the way all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares.

Over drinks she explains her job as a dominatrix, how she’s paid to beat and humiliate men.

“I know it’s fucked up,” she says. She explains that there’s no sex or nudity, that it’s completely legal. She explains that she doesn’t participate in S & M with boyfriends because she doesn’t want to sexualize what she sees as simply her job, even though she gets enjoyment out of her work.

“It’s… honestly the whole thing is really hard to explain,” she says.

You can’t help but relate.


One morning you wake up to her running around the mess of her room, collecting items for her day. This is a daily ritual, the disciplinarian who can’t seem to organize her own belongings. You ask her what her schedule is like.

“Class, class, then class,” she says, tossing a biology book in her book bag, “off-site session with that newscaster jackass tonight.” She wraps a bullwhip around her hand and slides it into her bag.

You ask her why he’s a jackass.

“He has this whole scenario where I’m an Arabian princess and he sees me partially nude so I discipline him,” she says. She pauses for a moment, running her finger over her lip as her eyes scan the room, “Where the fuck is my ball-gag?”

You shrug as she begins opening drawers and rooting through the contents.

“Anyway, the entire thing is full of stereotypes. I don’t even think he knows the difference between Hinduism and Islam.”

“Or Latino and Arabian,” you add. She nods in agreement, then dramatically pulls her hand from the bottom of a drawer. She raises her hand in triumph, a rubber red ball with a black strap in her palm.

“Found it!”

You know it’s a bad time, but you ask her how much longer the two of you should keep seeing each other, considering you’re gay and probably have no business dating girls.

“Until it isn’t fun anymore,” she says, leaving a kiss on your lips before rushing out the door.


On her back patio she attempts to teach you how to crack the bullwhip. In your attempt it snaps loud and hard, flailing back towards you and lashing your forearm.

“Ah fuck,” you say, hissing through your teeth as you hear the echo from the whip, “That fucking hurt.”

She laughs, spraying the last sip of her cocktail across the patio.

“This isn’t funny and I hate you,” you say. You feel a grin force itself past the pain.

Immediately you think of that book you’ve been reading, the one where the main character just assumes hate and love are the same.


A night of drinking brings your jealousies and insecurities to the surface.

“Christ why don’t you just fuck him if he’s so interesting?”

“Why don’t you just fuck him if you’re so fucking gay?”

You apologize to each other the next day but the air feels heavy as if tied down, uncomfortably hot as if smothered by leather. Over the next few days your conversations are just as sharp but the tone has changed.

In your head you hear the crack of a whip as you mention a handsome man you saw at the gym.

You hear the snap of leather as she describes making a client cry in a session earlier in the week.

Your conversations have become the rumbling of chains, a combination of pain and pleasure that benefits neither.

It’s become a struggle for control. Domination. Aggression. These words go through your head as if one of them is the safe word that will unlock the passion of the night you met.


One night, as the two of you attempt to sleep, you hold her close against you and say, “This isn’t fun anymore, is it?”

She agrees.

You say “I’m sorry” and she asks why.

You vocalize concerns that you’re no better than the men she disciplines for a living. You question if you were just using her as an escape from reality, a place to feel safe at first and later a place to play victim.

She laughs.

“That’s what dating is, dumb ass,” she says. She runs her hand through your hair. You’re not sure if you agree with what she's said but her answer comforts you.

You go to bed holding each other. In the morning you have sex and for a moment everything seems right again. But as you put your clothes on you remember it isn’t.

Afterward she frantically storms about her apartment gathering her school books for the day and you collect your things: the gym shorts you kept in her room for sleeping, some books on her coffee table, your toothbrush in her medicine cabinet.

You hug at her front door and thank her for being so much fun despite having a vagina, and apologize for acting a little crazy, but that she simply surprised you.

She pinches your penis through your jeans and says, "You surprised me, too."

The two of you agree to remain friends, because you live in a city full of assholes, and finding people that are fun is hard.

The safe word is "camaraderie."

Monday, May 2, 2011


I work at the front desk of a health sciences library.

That means I'm responsible for making sure everyone can find the books about sexually transmitted infections, gastrointestinal gaffes, and dermatological deviancy that only those with the strongest of stomachs can handle.

I'm also responsible for the bones.

The ones that came from living, breathing people and now serve as educational resources for the next generation of doctors and nurses.

We keep the bones in plastic bags or boxes, the names of their owners lost and replaced with "Femur" or "Tibia" or "Clavicle."

But the skulls interest me the most.

The skulls are various shapes and sizes, with cracks and contours in different places, some a dingy yellow and others a dull gray. They carry a ripe, relaxing odor.

They line the shelves in leather-bound boxes, amateur coffins lined with felt and topped with handles, stray teeth scattered along the floor of the box. We host a miniature mausoleum. The boxes are labeled with the skulls' new names.

Missing Teeth. Broken Jaw. Detached Mandible.

They're named after their flaws.

The students and medical professionals use them to study. They don't ask for the skulls by name. They just need a skull, any skull. Sometimes they ask for a plastic one, because it doesn't have to be real as long as it serves its purpose for two hours.

Prior Health Sciences Mausoleum and Brothel, this is Justin. How can I assist you today?

I can't count the number of times I've sent Detached Mandible with a student, only to have the student return in just a few minutes to ask for another one.

"Can I like, get another skull? This one's jaw is like, all messed up, you know?"

Each one has a laminated bar-code stretched across its forehead, meaningless lines and numbers that keep a detailed record of the hands the skull has passed through.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like be able to access a similar catalog of the skull's life, to be able to learn who held it and when.

An educated professional may be able to determine gender, age of death, and other qualities based on these features. I cannot. I prefer the ambiguity of it all.

Detached Mandible could be a doctor continuing her life's work or a murderer seeking redemption by saving lives in his death. The skulls have limitless potential. It's comforting, knowing that potential still exists after life.

Missing Teeth could be a mother or husband or someone you fucked in a Buick behind the 7-Eleven.

Was Broken Jaw's jaw broken in a bar fight defending his girlfriend's honor or cracked by a clumsy student?

In the same way an infant's future is full of possibilities, the past of the skulls is ripe with potential.

The skulls were reborn through death.

I hope that, someday, when the time is right, the same happens for everyone.