For months, Ben Simon had been working through uninspired days automatically and with no pleasure. He looked forward to little and remembered almost nothing of experiences past. He just chugged on, silently into the malaise. It wasn’t any one event that had placed or kept him in this state; he had certainly not always felt this way. One could look back at his breakup with his girlfriend of a year, or his steadily increased workload at a purposeless and thankless job. One could look at various music and writing projects that had sputtered into failure, or the departure to other cities, one after the other, of the only three friends he had thought worthwhile. Disillusioned, he had made no effort to find new and better ones, leaving him with a plethora of beige, interchangeable colleagues and acquaintances he had nothing in common with, but still met for drinks and dinners he didn’t enjoy, being too tired to consciously end the cycle.
In truth, however, there was no obvious culprit; only a result: he was riding the dull inertia of action without reward: of drinking without wanting a drink, eating and smoking just to pass the time, watching TV shows without laughing or learning or being entertained. He never felt the exciting sting of attraction to a woman, or arousal by her body. He never listened to music at home, or on his headphones, as he had so loved to do in days gone by. He slept a lot, having nothing to achieve while awake: no pleasure to chase, or project to complete; no evolution to forward, or relationship or to build. No life to live.
On an evening in January in which ice cream stores were crowded despite the cold, Ben found himself at another gathering he had merely not bothered avoiding. He was drinking bland, lukewarm beer with five colleagues in an upscale restaurant. Three were woman, and though he knew two of them were attractive, he wasn’t attracted to them. Someone had ordered chicken wings, which he picked at as he laughed sporadically at jokes he hardly heard, using others’ laughter as a cue.
Ben excused himself, needing to pee (one of the few acts that still offered satisfaction). As he unzipped, a large man in a pin striped suit and bowler hat, with a long gray goatee stepped up to the urinal next to his. It was surprising as Ben hadn’t heard the bathroom door open, or seen him come in.
‘How you doin tonight?’ the man asked in a deep voice. His enormous winklepickers were impeccably shined.
‘Same as always,’ Ben answered.
‘And how is that?’ the man asked, starting to pee. It sounded soothing, like a rolling brook on a shaded hillock.
‘Uninspired. Bored. Pointless.’ Though Ben had felt this way for months, he had never voiced these words, and did not know why he would blurt them out now.
‘That’s unfortunate,’ said the gargantuan man, still urinating a steady stream, ‘and may I say, no way to live when there’s so much to enjoy out there.’
‘I just don’t see it,’ said Ben, finishing up.
‘Would you like to?’
‘Feel hungry again. Want things. Be gratified, and eager for more.’ The man finished too and followed Ben to the basins, where both began washing their hands. The man’s were massive and manicured. The way they rhythmically massaged in the soap was hypnotic.
‘Don’t you want to want stuff? Have an itch to scratch?’
‘Not good enough, son. Tell me now – right now – and maybe things will change for you. Tell me now, and you just might just find that hunger once again.’
They both dried off.
‘OK. I do,’ Ben answered quickly, put on the spot. ‘I do want it back.’
‘Done.’ The man laughed so loudly that the paper towel dispenser rattled. ‘Shake on it,’ he added gruffly, enveloping Ben’s hand in his padded palms. ‘I got this one, but tomorrow, you’re on your own.’
‘Um. OK,’ Ben answered, too intimidated to say much else.
And then, like Keyser Söze, the man was gone.
Back in the bar, two of Ben’s party had left, and soon the others left too. Alone, he looked around for the mountain of pin stripes, but couldn’t see him. He would normally have gone home, but for some reason, Ben Simon had a hankering for a martini; in fact, it was a full-blown urge. He could already taste the cold smoothness as he sat at the bar and ordered in a confident voice: ‘vodka martini, dry and dirty, two olives.’
It came, he tasted, and it was delicious—so delicious, in fact, that he shook his head and went ‘mmm mmm.’
The drink stirred his appetite and he asked for the menu. So many choices and he wanted them all, but he ordered an appetizer platter for two, a steak frites, medium rare, and a bottle of Rioja, cause the meal just seemed incomplete without it. He ate and drank with greed and satisfaction, and everything was sublime. Upon completion of the excellent feast, with only some wine and crumbs remaining, Ben felt a strong desire for a cigarette. It sat at the base of his throat and told him, in no uncertain terms, that nothing could be better, right now, than satisfying this craving.
‘Keep an eye on the bottle, will you?’ he told the cute bartender, and snuck outside. The bite of the chilly wind felt clean and honest on his skin and he took a second to absorb it, noting its luxurious contrast to the warmth in his belly. He didn’t have any smokes so he bummed one off a girl nearby.
‘Sure.’ She smiled giving him one and lighting it. ‘And how are you doin tonight?’
‘You know what? I’m doing pretty damn great.’
‘Good to hear. What use is life when you aren’t, right?’
She was thoroughly, disarmingly beautiful, and in an instant, Ben wanted her, and badly. They chatted while they finished their cigarettes, Ben’s filling a hole nothing else could, and as they went back inside, he invited her to help him finish the bottle of wine that stood waiting.
The conversation was the best Ben had had in years; he was attentive and interested even as she beguiled him with her exquisite looks and intoxicating sex appeal. After another bottle of an even better, more expensive red, which hit an even warmer, meatier spot, she asked if he wanted to come smoke a joint at her place. ‘It’s just around the corner.’
‘Honestly, I could think of nothing I’d like more.’
The joint thickened everything into a creamy cloud: his lust, his hunger, his thirst and laughter. He walked to her fridge and downed a bottle of ice-cold water in four eager gulps. And when he returned to her, she was waiting, soft, alive, and keen.
He devoured her, and she him. Three times they spun the room into chaos with their swollen, rushing lust, feasting and digging and reaching no stop. Giving and taking with no inhibition. Drowning in sexual inebriation.
And at the end, consumed and collapsed, sated on skin and every way in, they were hungry again, for all other things: champagne and chocolate, vodka and latkes, kind bud, air con, jazz and techno, TV and comforters and the sound of the rain, and all that would hide any memory of pain.
So they hunkered down and ordered in. Another joint cloaked all in-depth and stillness, like heavy snowfall in the pines. They touched some more and rode out the dream till the urge for sleep broke over them. As Ben gave in, holding his beautiful lover in an easy embrace, he sensed it one last time: this is as good as it gets.
In the late morning, sleek strands of sunlight crept through the living room window to wake Ben Simon. As he sat up and pulled on his pants he mumbled the words: Today, it’s up to me. He was already looking forward to coffee, eggs and toast.
And what about you? You still here? You still hungry?
By E.M. Vireo