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"Master of Romance," short story excerpt

Saturday 7/23/22

Nate Crayton was a master of romance. The word legendary was built for him and it might as well as have been made of pieces of titanium. Tales were told in his own head of how he slayed and how he shredded, but he didn't slay with an ax or shred with a guitar. He slayed with romance and intimacy, and the women came back for more.

Ah, the list and the legacy. Once there was a notebook where previously soppy poems of self-doubt and alienation were kept by a rebellious boy who hardcore-loved the Doors and idolized Jim Morrison wearing his calfskin pants, screaming about spasmodic goldmines and reptile kings until the poems were crowded out from those college-ruled lines by sexual stats that would be the stuff of the back of a naughty kind of baseball card.

He was the first to finger someone in middle school, the first and only to fuck five different girls in high school, the first to hook up at college, and on moving-in day at that. Both the lord of the manor and the lord of misrule. He always went first, leading by hymen-busting, sheet-tugging example. Not that he wanted anyone to follow him, though, because Nate Crayton would likely be returning to fuck that person again, being a master of romance and not a one-and-done type. And like he said, he wasn't into sloppy seconds.

He had that kind of face that always seemed to be asking—it was the eyes—"get it?" after a joke had been attempted. Any usage of the words sloppy seconds brought on that look emphatically, though it was the successive look of severity and consequence that served as grave reminder and warning. Nate Crayton was serious—even militantly fastidious—about only wanting his semen to be in what he amused himself by referring to as the burial mound, a double-pun that passed for trenchant wit when nothing else was at hand. The mark of the romance master. As he told his therapist, Dr. Gent, he had a healthy libido.

"That's your phrase for it?" she asked him, as he lowered his chin just enough to let her know that he meant business, the way a gunfighter answers the question, “Ready?” in old westerns.

He'd insisted that she be a she and not the old guy with whom she shared an office, who was his original referral. The latter reminded Nate Crayton of his grandfather, a man who had always smelled of animal crackers and wouldn’t say goodbye to you without first offering a life tip. “Buckle up.” “Help out your mom.” “Look after yourself.” Talking to the senior therapist, a Dr. Burnkell—which sounded like a foot growth—would have been like listening to an audio book version of The Saturday Evening Post. Wouldn’t hack it. And there’d just be nothing to do. No way to get through.

But Dr. Gent was different. Coming in each week was different. God how Nate Crayton wished he could be alone in her house and go through her bureau to see what kind of toys she had. She must have owned toys. Get the lay of the land on what she was working with, what she preferred, what was her go-to toy, what merely fleshed out the retinue. The smell of the latex. Stains like complex, Abstract Expressionist fractals in the sweet spot of elongated vibrators. These were the kinds of lines and phrases that made him want to say, "Get it?" as though he were imitating himself as a younger man, a kid, speaking to a buddy who was sufficiently wowed by the places Nate Crayton had been, so to speak, and the women he’d done, a favored verb and term. This was the form of “get it” that Nate Crayton issued to a ghost version of himself that still stuck around, similar to the type of guy who leaves the bar when the bartender does and stands outside beside him, watching him turn the lock in the door.

He often wondered if she shaved her pussy. Then again, she could have been the type to let it grow wild. Like that field in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and her friends pass out because it's so overgrown and hypnotic. Her eyebrows were thick. That was a telltale sign that there was a plentitude of hair—if she wanted there to be—elsewhere. Damn, she maybe was the sort who if she wanted to could have pubic hair coming up to the bottom of her stomach and even on the sides of her legs. Pubic hair you could braid. The smell. She must have been intoxicating. All that juice preserved by hirsute entanglement in blankets and fields of red, because Dr. Gent was a ginger, a term that Nate Crayton didn’t love, but it had some sardonic zing. A field as carpeted monument to secretion, and the eternal allure of women. It was like fucking Greek poetry, and Nate sniffed the air for a mid-session whiff of her, the way a wolf, the spirit animal of most Indians, he figured, probed the faintest breeze with its nose, as nature intended, because that is what they call natural order and harmony.

And she had the ripping body. She was only born three years before him. He wanted to call her auntie. Thank her for giving him a beer after he swung by to fix her freezer. Accepting her offer to cool down with a shower and thinking, wow, she might really be walking through that door in just a towel to follow him in. She could make some excuse about a persistent drip, and would he look at that, too, because she’d favor the “get it?” line of comedy as well. It could be an in-joke between them, a harkening back to people they no longer were, but still valued and revisited from time to time. You grow up, but you’re still aware of what you grew up from. Or passed. It’s a way to say that you’re not mired. No one wants to be mired, Nate Crayton, thought. You want to clear things. Jump them.

"I do call it that," he answered, in response Dr. Gent’s question about the health of his libido. He imagined it was Iwo Jima and he was planting that flag in the ground. Establishing place, identity, belonging. Rights and authority. His dad had served in 'Nam.

"I say what things are," he continued, mulling the slenderness of her fingers as they gripped her pen and scratched away in her notebook with sufficient vigor that he could hear the very act of writing, which felt intimate but innocent. Sweet, even. He thought about what hand jobs used to mean to him when he was twelve and the bird of youth flexed its commanding, invincible wings, and he snuck out at Thanksgiving to meet a girl he’d dared to join him on the other side of the berm across from his house.

"Healthy enough," he repeated.

"As we said last time," Dr. Gent continued—while Nate mulled casually calling her Sarah when the time was up, as in, "We'll see each other next week, Sarah”—"this is not productive behavior. It's not ideal for you, and we aren't going to minimize that, but even more so, it's not ideal for others. The people that get hurt. Libido isn't the same as what we're talking about. And like we touched on last time, people you care about have been caused pain. The connections aren’t always obvious, but they’re there. We feel those fissures in time. And sometimes it’s too late to seal them over."

She was so close to saying, "I care about you," and that was so close to "fill me." He bet that she had never fucked a patient, though he didn't like to think of himself as just a patient, but he also bet that she had always wanted to, given the right opportunity.

Conceivably she was thinking of a repairman scenario of her own, or whatever women did. Could have been something at a farm where horses were ridden. She'd just given a girl a lesson there. Her side gig from the whole psychotherapy thing. He had come for some fresh air, to wander the grounds which were open to the public—he'd read a web piece recommending local therapeutic places people were free to visit—and think his important thoughts, decompress after another challenging but triumphant week at the office. One look from her, all sweaty, in the cowgirl hat, having said goodbye to the last family of the day after they picked up their daughter with her little riding helmet, would do it. Then he'd know he could get in there.

"I heard riding horses make women orgasm," he'd say, after first striking up some conversation about how it looked like a storm was coming on, because that was bang-on farm conversation, with perhaps a joke about feedbags and alfalfa, which guinea pigs ate, and he figured horses must have as well. She'd laugh at his boldness, but then again, a lot goes on a farm and she'd know the drill, a detail that even as he thought it made him want to say, "Get it?"

"You don't know the half of it," she'd tell him.

Then, two minutes later, on the floor of a barn that smelled of old apples, she'd say "yeehaw," as he also thought, "I love me a good old IUD," like he was Pecos Fucking Bill, all up in somebody, and with dimples in her cheeks, too, which was a thing of his.

Fuck yeah. This was wild. And it could stay that way, the storm raging too hard outside for them to stop and go anywhere, living off their bodies, all but feeding off of them. Maybe even doing a version of feeding off of them. Super primitive, like genius cave paintings or Navajo blankets. If she got up after hours and hours to relieve herself, with the thunder still crashing, and took a shit on the ground, that was cool, she could get right back on after, as far as he was concerned. Wipe her fingers in the dirt. We’re all so human.

"Same time next week," Dr. Gent said, walking him to the door at the end of the session, her arms folded over her chest, so that he couldn't see her fingers, couldn't see if her nipples were hard, which they were one time about half a year back, causing him to check and be extra certain every time since. They were thick, he thought. Chunky nipples, and he wanted to confirm. The kind of thick piling of skin that is still soft.

"Okay," he said. "That'll be great," by which he also meant "hot," though with an additional wrinkle of buckling anxiety that he hoped didn't show through, regarding his abiding, tormenting, unavoidable horror that he didn't possess a full and proper soul, sort of like how his dad used to tell him about Pistol Pete Maravich, his dad's all-time favorite NBA player, who was a beast, the best scorer ever, but he only had a fraction of a heart, the actual organ, and then he just died tragically young, but only after his career was over.

"God put that boy here to score," Nate Crayton, Sr. said, and would describe how Pistol Pete seemed to shoot the ball from his hip, like he was a cross between an Old West gunfighter and a hardwood virtuoso. The fastest release in history. "Then God called him home when it was done."

He was a loving man. He taught Nate and his sisters gentleness above all. Didn't mean weakness, he told them. Nate loved his sisters. They were so busy with their lives. Their kids. He envied them, but was also relieved that they had their happiness. Hoped that they kept it. That they stayed married and got everything they wanted from life. He missed the old man, even if he had shot the family dog one morning, and buried it in woods behind the house on the day that they were going to bring it to the vet to be put down.

Nate had gotten himself as ready as he could to say goodbye. To sleep with the dog in his bed one last time. He had an unusual fear of dogs, that he’d become too attached, and never be able to recover from the eventual loss. He’d hold the love back, keep some in reserve. The same could go with people because what would you do if they left and you’d given them all of you? What could you ever love again? It just wasn’t feasible. You had to keep some back. You had to keep a lot back, if it was someone you could love so much that that love became everything you were.

At first he thought the dog must have left on its own, though it had never done that before, because it wasn't there when Nate got up early, which he had made a point of doing so that they could play a bit; either just in case, to see if the dog was getting better, or for one last time. A send-off. Closure, though Nate didn’t know that word then. He hated his dad after. Hated him for weeks. Promised himself he'd never love him again.

"I should have had you with me," his dad apologized. " That was wrong of me not to bring you."

That didn't seem like the issue to Nate. The dog was going to die anyway, his father would have said, probably did say it. Was hard to remember. He was a man who spoke about doing things for yourself, rather than relying on others to do what you can't handle on your own. That was strength, he’d say. He wanted his son to see, not to learn secondhand. The apology was for not waking the boy so he could watch. To take in the death part of life, which was part of living.

Nate snuck into his parents’ room when they were off on an errand, opened a drawer in his father's dresser, and took out his favorite handkerchief, or what he reckoned as such, creamy white with blue trim. His father was a handkerchief man who wouldn’t be caught dead without one, and wasn’t, because he was buried with this same piece of cloth sticking out of the top of his suit pocket. Nate masturbated into it while looking at a Hustler he co-owned with a buddy, the two of them passing it back and forth over a whole summer in ten-day stints of possession. He didn't give the full load. Didn't want it clumpy. He was going for a drizzle, a glaze, undetectable over the white, and away from the blue. There were chunks on some days. Pasty globs. Hopefully they weren’t parts of his intestines or urethra. They smelled the same as the rest of it, though. Mildew and coconut.

The orgasm wasn't pleasurable. It was business. He was in a habit of sticking his finger up his ass as he came so he could feel his rectal muscles clench, but he didn't on this occasion, because it seemed wrong. He finished, and folded the handkerchief into the same triangular geometry in which he'd found it, returned it to the dresser and the imbricated stack of its fellow handkerchiefs, and continued with his hate, though he also knew it wasn't real, or, worse, was misdirected.

Nate Crayton Sr.'s son couldn't bring himself to tell his therapist about Pistol Pete Maravich or his relentless, hammering fear about the issue of his soul, and whether it can be missing a valve or an opening, like a heart. He liked to talk about his daughter, but not his ex-wife, with her obvious prowess as the full-time parent. She had it all under control, his ex-wife did. Thriving. She looked healthier the older she got. She bloomed. And the kid—even Nate wanted to say the word “flourishing,” and flourishing without him, with any update he received about her, as if that was her name, and not Florence.

They lived so many states away. The kid rode horses, sent him videos of the jumps she made. They made. She and the horse. He wasn't sure how the credit was apportioned. The jumps made him nervous. There were more and more of them with each video. They got higher, too. But he knew that they had succeeded. The girl and her mother. That when they thought about the word “family,” they both thought something else than what they used to think. Some people succeed, and some don’t. They always would succeed. They had found their way, together, just as they found their way as individuals. Had two years really been so long ago? It wasn’t just the two years. It was that they seemed to need only a month to succeed. To be on their way. A month without him. He hadn’t even been unfaithful. Everything had been a sacrifice, he once thought. That’s what you did, though—you forsook. But it’s hard to be a hero—which is how Nate wanted to think of himself—if you’re not making people happy.


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