Loud in bed, loud in life.
I’ve always been soft-spoken. Even in bed. “Are you having a good time?” is a question I’ve heard a dozen times by various men, always with discouraging timing, like right after a bout of what I think are obvious grunts of my approval. I go through life speaking, and groaning, at volume level nine, while the world hears me at three.
Enter Jake, a bold, big-mouthed braggart who’d moved to San Francisco from New York City. Talking and volume were never Jake’s problem. Even with his mouth shut, Jake communicated, like the first time I saw him, sitting across a crowded room from me, his biceps straining the sleeves of a t-shirt that read: “I Make Boys Cry.”
The t-shirt scared the hell out of me, and led me, in a burst of self-protection, to cross him out as candidate for My Next Husband. But still I found him, and the t-shirt, and what the t-shirt implied, compelling. My attraction ran hand-in-hand with my terror, skipping through the landscape of dirty daydreams. Some of us are cursed with bad boy hunger, God help us.
We started as pals. Two guys grabbing coffee after one of those meetings where ex-drunks gather for comic camaraderie. He’d listen to my latest woes, all the ways I’d let some guy treat me like a doormat. The broken promises, canceled plans, and hidden boyfriends. My mute reaction.
He’d listen for a while, then lean across the table and whisper, “You just need to get fucked. Really hard.”
It was a good set-up; I could flirt safely with him, (he had a boyfriend) till our coffee grew cold, then run back to my quiet, reserved, hopeful life. By “flirting,” I mean I’d turn red for a good hour, never breaking my guarded stance, never raising my voice loud enough to tell him all the things I pictured doing with another man, never saying what I wanted from life, because, well, that just wasn’t me.
Then I left for grad school in New York City, a double-fisted smack-down, where my writing got torn apart in workshop, and my skin peeled back on unrelenting sidewalks teeming with hyper-opinionated blowhards.
I read four books and scrawled 20 pages of text a week, downloaded pirated Brian Eno tunes in my studio apartment, hid for relief in the dim library stacks.
Jake mailed me a selfie with his pit bull, and I stuck it on my fridge, where it hung the whole two years I lasted there. I’d crawl home down Broadway and stand in my kitchen, bruised from colleague feedback, or bolstered by a professor’s “atta boy,” and I’d look at Jake and think about sex, a thing I had no time for.
It took a while, but I grew a spine in Manhattan. I stuck up for my work in class, walked against stoplights, slept through car alarms and all-night construction. When bastards tried to push onto the train before letting passengers off, I’d shoulder through them and knock them off-balance.
But San Francisco was home, the only place on the planet where I’d ever felt comfortable, a fact that only solidified the longer I was away. I moved back when coursework was done, in the summer of 2006, when I was still single.
And now, so was Jake.
It didn’t take long. We hit the gym together several times a week, where we exchanged playful grins in the mirror over sweaty sets of military presses, the two of us hooked into a drawn-out foreplay with one inevitable end.
It came the night he swung by to take me out on our first official date. I let him in and he pushed me up against the wall and kissed me. We left shirts and shoes and jeans in a long trail to my bed. I can’t remember if we even left the house that night.
Over the coming weeks, we’d spend a lot of time in bed. One night he stopped kissing me long enough to ask, “What do you WANT?”
“Huh?” I said. “What? What do you mean?”
“What do you want?”
“What? When? Now?”
And for a moment I was speechless, couldn’t say what I wanted aloud. I hemmed and hawed. I blushed.
“This,” I finally said. “I want this.” Meaning he and I, together, and what we were doing.
“Good,” he said. “What else?”
Again I stalled. We already had our clothes off, but his questions, and the answers I couldn’t give, stripped away more of my cover. I don’t raise my voice. I don’t say certain things aloud.
“Fuck that,” he said. “Tell me something sick.”
I stammered, scarlet, for a second or two, before I revealed a long-held, deeply private fantasy. “Well,” I said. “Picture us on a boat. And I’m the cabin boy…”
And that seemed to work, for both of us.
But his challenge was not confined to sex. Later, after dinner, after the plates and silverware had been tucked into the dishwasher, we stood necking in his kitchen. And he asked the question again. “What do you want?”
“What?” I asked. “In sex?”
My eyes focused on his chest. I don’t share my ambitions. I was a Midwestern boy raised on humility, shame, and superstition. To say dreams out loud is to lose them.
“I want to make a living doing what I love,” I finally said, mumbling against his neck, guarded behind the rock of modesty.
“Fuck that,” he said. “You want to be famous.”
“You want to go on all of the talk shows.” He grabbed my chin and locked his eyes with mine.
“You want Matt Lauer to fawn.”
“Um,” I said. “Well…yeah.”
And in my head strange things happened; I heard my voice crack open walls, which crumbled to the ground.
He kissed me. “Good. Keep going.”
“I want to change people’s lives,” I said, before I had time to think. The sky darkened, and a hurricane swept through a city.
“I want to matter.” A string of cars exploded.
“I want people to say, Finally, someone put that into words!”
“Yeah!” he growled.
“I want to make money.” Tornadoes tore through a stadium packed with the innocent.
“I want more money than those assholes who walk around the gym like they own the place.” Tsunami, thunder, terror.
“I want to be invited to parties.”
“And say, No!”
“Oh my God,” he said, and stuck his tongue down my throat.
I’d learn a lot over the coming months, just watching Jake, about confidence, and the heat one exudes when shedding shame.
But we wouldn’t last. Though he’d knocked me a few inches in his direction, the gulf between our temperaments made together forever unlikely. Are massive overhauls to personality even possible? Or do we change — if we change — in half degrees?
My days as doormat are over. I push back when struck. I tell sex partners what I want. But my voice remains measured, people refer to me as “sweet,” and I only let slip a dream or two, shielding the planet from their powers of destruction.