Katie Gene Friedman is a queer, invisibly disabled high school dropout working in sexual and reproductive health. Her nonfiction chapbook Foreign Body is available via Future Tense Books. Katie’s words have appeared in Maudlin House, Queen Mob's Tea House, Expat Press, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @ValleyGirlLift.
by Katie Gene Friedman
An hour before we’re supposed to meet up, I take a break from crouching on all fours. Spraying Windex, Nature’s Miracle, Kaboom with the power of OxiClean. Scrub-a-dub-dubbing in concentric circles, bullseye to rim, as I’d learned to clean wounds in nursing school. My knees leopard printed in variegated bruises, supersaturated floor tugging at my bare heels. Tomorrow, I’ll return to photograph each countertop and cabinet, the electric stove I’d scoured with steel wool. They’re fixing to rip it out in the renos, which is some Sisyphean bullshit; but my slumlord in this cruddy high-rise isn’t going to shake another penny out of me. Nuh-uh, not if I can help it. I pancake the bayadere-striped beach chairs I’d left behind to lounge on, dizzy on fumes of fluids, and sling them over my shoulders to gear up for the 15-minute walk to my new apartment in a multi-unit house. Their poles extend from my scapulae like the aggressive wings of an outstretched bird. Neighbors stagger between parked cars to give me a wide berth.
On our first date, we sat precisely six feet apart on a diagonal in the courtyard garden, first cross-legged, then loose-legged, paper weight butts truncating the 7-foot hypotenuse of my 5’-by-5’ picnic blanket. Tucked behind the behemoth of a building, the singed grass jabbed at us like Uncle Fester’s bed of nails as we veered off catty corner junctions of the quilted square, respecting each other’s space. My tape measure had been handy for my impending move, flimsy strip of steel flopping then snapping back into place like those slap bracelets banned from elementary school. Never had I ever dreamed of applying the Pythagorean Theorem to real life, nevertheless human mating. Double-triple checking my empirical measurements against the ABCs of 90-degrees, I’d longed for middle school when the most complex calculation was how a boy could feign a yawn and reach around to rest his arm on a girl’s shoulder.
On my new back deck, I pair each chair with its own mosaic side table, purchased expressly for the Remote Times. This time I only eyeball the six feet between us. We’re going to smash faces and flesh, regardless. Spit and sweat mingling, sound and motion entangling. It’s been over six months since either of us has gotten laid. Recently out of a long-term relationship with a lesbian, he’s what I’d call a sure thing.
* * *
“Masks inside, none outside?” Robin asks in earnest, waiting on my doorstep to be let in. This prelude is nothing more than an elaborate charade, like when I ask prospective partners, “Do you ever get tested?” to appear all respectable-like ahead of blithely ditching the condoms.
The rest of the evening is social distance theater, me the only performer. Wish we could ditch the farce from the get-go. But that’s on me, a woman’s responsibility to play sexual gatekeeper no matter how bad she wants to plow on through.
“You got it,” I say dutifully.
* * *
Into our low-rise seats we slump, as if clumsy giants Goldilocks-ing Baby Bear’s furniture. With our security beverages on hand and legs sprawled out between, we argue about whether “queer” is the North Star of one’s genitals or a political stance that self-destructs upon mainstream acceptance and monetization of a subculture. About what constitutes an effective rubric for drug treatment given relapse as a defining feature of chronic illness. We alternate who’s inside peeing, getting a refill; who’s outside waiting, checking their phone.
Robin shares his social anxieties: days on pause anticipating upcoming interactions, calculating methods to ingratiate someone before deciding whether he even likes them. Mostly, I ruminate after the fact, replaying potentially cringey things I said, straining to see how they could have been misinterpreted, recontextualized, or blown out of proportion.
I ask if he’s spent his day rehearsing for me. “No,” he says, “not at all.” I’m straightforward, so he’s comfortable with me.
When he tosses the question back, I’m unprepared, hadn’t quite thought through the expectation for reciprocation. “No,” I determine, contemplating my kneecaps sheepish. “Because I could probably get you to hook up with me.”
Then add, as to not sound overeager, “… if that’s what I wanted.”
His eyes thin into coin slots, smile spreading like a puddle. “You’re right about that,” he confirms the obvious. Yesss, got this one in the bag, except it’s hard to break the momentum of banter, move on to a second location—given that alternate locations no longer exist.
* * *
It isn’t until he reminds me of an undisclosed tall-person task I’d pre-assigned that we’re back indoors together, both masked. Standing in the gutter of my bed, I direct his eyes to a recessed space above my clothing closet, then gesture at a hard-shell suitcase stuffed with vacuum bags of winter coats. He hangs his baseball cap on my doorknob, revealing a hairline patterned in the ‘M’ of an orange tabby. We pivot around each other. I offer my Costco step stool, three-tiered like a wedding cake.
“That won’t be necessary,” Robin dismisses, overestimating himself.
Heave-ho, fifty pounds over his head, he realizes he isn’t going to make it and climbs up two shelves, tempting the wooden unit to funnel toward the center beam. What if his booster foot breaks through and the shelves cave in? I cast him as Kevin McCallister in Home Alone—the wad of cash Kevin seizes from the rubble, Buzz’s pet tarantula scampering away. From the edge of my bed, I redirect as though he’s doing a hack parking job, me curbside.
Back on the ground, he turns toward me and looks as if he’s about to say something…
“Do you want to un-socially distance?” I use the transition to segue from ask to ask—the sentiment unmistakable, despite the marginally misplaced modifier. Palming my mattress, I’m ready to push off and meet him halfway. An audible sigh escapes from behind his mask.
“I think we should wait,” he resigns.
My jaw is an aircraft staircase spitting out onto an arrival runway. I envision a procession of pent-up passengers emerging from the gape, their suitcases and coats dragging, as they adjust to the temperature and light of the grounded world. To return me to my resting state, my jaw will have to be hoisted up manually, a flight attendant on each side: Ready? On three… One, two…
“But I do want to kiss you,” he concedes to my covered yet unconcealable drop-jaw.
This seems like a weird consolation prize. A fuck you, almost. My eyes narrow in bewilderment, eyelashes dull clipper blades. I fold my teeth back into my face, press my lips together.
“You wanna kiss me?” I repeat to myself, processing the letdown.
Robin knows my stance on kissing: a bizarre practice, as supported by humans are the only species that partake. Sex: a universal practice, imperative on a population level. It’s a tricky calculus; the terms of Robin’s bait-and-switch, or counteroffer, or whatever. Like, sure, I’d agreed to kiss him, implicitly, when I’d offered sex: it’s a customary component. But is it reasonable to just kiss? All the risk without the benefit.
“Fine,” I exhale, my body aching for another.
Under the halo of my bedside lamp, his translucent eyelashes sparkle as if peppered with a dash of dandelion dust. My demi-cupped tits loom over his flushed face, skater dress flowering around my thighs. His hand crawls underneath. Two fingers wiggle against me. Through his jeans, I feel for his outline, try to orient my body in line with wherever he aims.
“Can I take off any of your clothes?” I press, running his waistband between my thumb and forefinger, as though merging the pink and blue of a freezer bag’s seal.
“No,” he denies flatly.
I wonder if Robin can feel me weeping through my underwear. The more I wonder, the more it comes true.
“I want you so badly, Katie,” he whimpers, which is fucking annoying: he the sole blockade between want and get. It’s a Na-na-na-na-nah, you can’t catch me. And his playful taunting reifies my pursuit.
I weigh the injustice of his getting to set the terms: he’s already mined a sense impression for his memory; I only want to see him, a coming attraction. I speculate on how long my particles will be on parade—twisting his lock, sweeping his banister, gripping his toothbrush, tucking into bed. If he’ll wash his hands straight away, or swirl his fingers under his nostrils, aerating a swig of wine, selfish.
In high school, my cousin’s English teacher taught their class women wear lipstick to imitate aroused vaginas. The pockets of perfume folded into Seventeen Magazine, the blitz of fragrance clouds that befell as you strolled a department store’s checkerboard aisle. Swiping stiff test strips across my inner wrists, I knew those scents were not meant for me; they were not me. Instead, I’d grow up to rub my clit, smear its pasty smegma down my carotid. That’s what they mean by authenticity, I believe? Amidst the CK Be—be yourself but blot out yourself—mode of fashion marketing, our bodies packaged for consumption. Able to generate our own pheromones, it's almost a perversity to adorn with synthetic. On a mission with friends, craning on tippy toes toward a bartender, lecherous breath of some creep burning the back of my neck, I’d flip my hair and a subtle whiff of femininity would waft back. Refuting the claim that sex had been their idea, that they had claimed me. My scent, my territory. A lure, a memory.
On his way out, Robin slides his baseball cap back over his ‘M,’ asks, “Are you mad at me?” There’s fear in his overcast eyes, as if I’m a vengeful god armed to throw jagged rods of lightning upon his house, smite his first born.
“Disappointed, yes… Sexually frustrated…” I enumerate the ways in which he’s failed me.
“Mad? Of course not,” I dismiss the accusation. His reflexive servility leaves me profoundly unsettled. The insinuation that sex is all he’s worth, our burgeoning relationship a simple exchange of services. I wonder: Was his expectation of anger an instantiation of his social anxiety, unconvinced of his own likability? Or do I exude a toxic type of entitlement?
* * *
“Hey, I’m home ☺” Robin texts, unprompted. “Literally aching thinking about you.” Now, I am mad: his pain his own doing, this useless information two miles apart. Unsympathetic, I deploy an adolescent eye roll emoji. The next day, I’m too hungover to meet up; the day after that, the wait is over. The sex fumbling and effete, our intro to fucking is followed by a six-week hiatus, while he quarantines and drives cross-country to visit his parents.
I spend that stretch of time replaying the dance of denial, altering the scenario ever so slightly with more libidinous dialogue, inching incrementally toward what I’d craved. What would have happened if I’d requested, “I just want a little peek, a sneak preview.” If I’d inquired, “Can you feel me seeping through?” Or, better yet, offered, “Do you want to feel how wet you’re making me?” What would have happened if I’d asked for permission, “Am I allowed to touch myself?” That final one really gets me. And so, for six weeks, I give myself permission.
* * *