The Last Great Triumph
by Rusty Barnes
Johnny was careful to say people instead of men when he spoke in generalities, which was nearly all the time; he wanted me to think he had my feminist number in doing so. The downwardly mobile English PhD type, he had oil money to back his meanderings. I had 123,000 dollars in medical school about a third of the way paid off. I had trouble concentrating on his words, as he spat when he talked, but he lived in the River Oaks section of Houston, and I hoped that his initial charm might overcome his correctness, the way some women said it would. We sat in a garden restaurant off Alabama Street, confronted by a great mass of nachos and cheese, one pitcher of Busch down and another half-gone. It was our first real date.
"The last great triumph of humanity is body modification," Johnny said to me.
"Really?" I had visions then of Johnny with nipple rings, maybe a few lines from 'Ode to the West Wind' scarified into his back. I grinned at that, and Johnny took that as a sign to continue.
"It's a fact -- now we can change our bodies. Fat was fat before. Now with liposuction it's all up for grabs. Tattoos and piercing are the beginning." Johnny stuffed a tortilla chip -- black beans and viscous red stuff, the tiny end of a jalapeno -- into his mouth. "Who knows where it might end?" He wore a white shirt and a black vest, and affected the little pocket notebook too. I knew this would end badly, but those poet-boys with their dark eyes and pale faces just made me want them. I had spent the last ten years with red-eyed fellow surgeons who wanted coffee and sleep and money, little else. I wanted to follow this as far as it might go.
Johnny saw and said things only God or a pent romantic could claim to see, his eyes blinkered by the heatstroke fury in his words, his hands waving up and down in counterpoint: the Rosicrucian influence in Renaissance poetry, the latent homosexuality of the free safety, the simple quotes from the greats that might warm the panties of the most jaded first-year cheerleader but not someone like me, he said. This adolescent passion appealed to me, just as it would any 35-year-old single woman in arrested development. It was the idea of passion, the notion that my quickened breath and hollow chest might mean something to someone.
Johnny and I had met in the Barnes & Noble café. He'd seen me in the poetry section fingering the Baudelaire and followed me through the long café lines for the next new thing, the Mango Citrus Tiazzi. He pressed into me as we waited, whispered lines of poetry I didn't recognize. That was enough. We met a few times there informally, and grew conversational quickly, and he just never stopped talking, the way he was today.
"By the way, I saw a vision in the heat and asphalt today on the way over to get you. The coruscating heat brought tears to my eyes, and I saw you lying in the midst of a green jungly pool, water trickling all around, as naturally beautiful as the stones themselves, dreaming deeply." His eyes were closed as he spoke, and he leaned back in his chair, his arms thrust backward in an ecstasy of expression. His armpits were black with sweat. He slammed forward suddenly. "I hoped you were dreaming of me." Johnny smiled his shy smile at me.
"Your air conditioner broke again, huh?" I twitched a bit, but then I thought I make him nervous, that's cute, don't blow this.
"What? Don't you think it would be beautiful for everyone to have the opportunity to have the body they want?" He pulled at his beer, then, and a shy smile crept into his teeth. "I mean, considering what you do, you must have an opinion?"
Just then my phone rang and I excused myself.
"Hi Debbie." Tim was my roommate. A little more than my roommate. He interrupted my dates sometimes, for no apparent reason except that he and I slept together recreationally every so often when the pressure built, which for him was daily, and for me, monthly. Sometimes. Sometimes every six months. But. Sex -- no problem. Love -- quite another. Johnny would be better than another night in the apartment alone and avoiding the rental porn Tim insisted on watching, but on the other hand, I could go home and have sex, and I knew that, but there would be no romance.
"I'll be home waiting for you." I could hear the TV roaring in the background.
"Don't tell him."
"What?" Johnny looked away, cracked his knuckles. I smiled at him, pointing to the phone and rolling my eyes.
"Don't tell him what you do."
"Poor Deb. No Lothario tonight, eh?"
"Yeah. I'll be in early to take care of it."
See, what I do is a contentious point for my dates, maybe explaining why I have so few of them, why they think romance is somehow something I would not enjoy. I am a plastic surgeon. I do rhinoplasties and breast augmentation, liposuction and penis-enlargement. Imagine how these 'what-do-you-do-for-a-living conversations go, how dating goes, in the home state of Dubya and mass murder and strip joints on every other block in West Houston. And being a person who excises noses, vacuums yellow fat from rich men and women, lengthens penises for money.
Johnny's head tipped slightly to the left, and I realized he was actually waiting for an answer. "Sorry about the call," I said. I looked at him with as much sweetness as I could muster. "I think I should go home now."
As we sat in his car, his AC wheezing at us, he did what I knew he would. He looked me in the eye and asked me to look at his penis. "To see if anything can be done," Johnny said. It wasn't the first time I'd heard that, and I was past the point of wondering about it. No romance for me. I tried telling them I was just a doctor, a GP, but the specifics of the matter came up again and again. I wanted to keep them as friends, I wanted to cultivate them as lovers, I did not want them as patients, but the idea of someone who can help them with their self-esteem always became more important than whatever I might mean to them as a date. And there's that Hippocratic oath. Some doctors could separate their lives from their work. I could not. And so I looked at the penises of nearly every man I dated, the clinical possibility of their esteem worth much more than my desire for something concrete beyond the scalpel.
"Fine," I said. "Let's go inside." I've discovered over the last few years that for men, the idea of having a clinical hand on their penis is not erotic in the way most people would believe, but comforting instead, in the way that a mother's or wife's hand can be in a nonsexual way. Some of them do try to sneak the idea of coitus into professional examination, but most men, I believe, just want a gentle reaffirmation of their most sensitive concerns: Am I adequate? And so I became a comforter.
I brought him inside the front door, dropped my keys onto the counter, and turned to Johnny, who was looking at my fridge with studious concern.
"Okay," I said. "Take down your pants." I could hear the snap of a beer can opening in the living room. At least and for once Tim had the sound down.
Johnny even had the grace to blush. When he showed me his penis, I have to say I was surprised. I mean, contrary to what men believe and women romanticize, penises are pretty much alike. This one was large, so big it had a kink in the middle and the hard left lean of a poor circumcision.
"So. Can you help me?" He sounded plaintive, almost, and I wondered how I could have ever thought I would have a normal relationship. I destroy bodies, change what they are into something more socially acceptable in the good name of esteem, and get paid for it. It's a bitter sort of pseudo-godlike activity that leaves one ripe for the romance of cynicism.
"Penis shrinking isn't so common, Johnny." I wiped my hands on a dishtowel as I looked at him. "But I think we can at least get that straightened out."
Johnny shook my hand as he left, actually shook my hand. "I'm so grateful, Debbie." I really am. I'll call you tomorrow."
I realized it would be a call for an appointment. It never occurred to me that it would be otherwise. "Don't mention it. It was a ... pleasure." I shut the door behind him, and walked into the living room.
The movie Tim watched was hardcore, two men and one woman, a woman with breasts from a knife and a tiny appendix scar poorly made up. I bent down before Tim and looked at his fat and uncircumcised cock. As I felt him reach behind me for my bra snap, I turned slightly and saw a close-up of this woman's immense breasts swaying in the picture, and these shaved men who looked preoperative and disgusting to me. I turned back to Tim and looked up at him as the on-screen woman bent over. I swirled my tongue around the head of it and looked back up at him. Today it was an itch; tomorrow might be the day that romance came. Tim pulled me into his lap then and pulled my hair in his hands, gazed directly into my eyes. "So it's not what you want. We never get exactly what we want. But we can do with what we have, most of the time." He kissed my earlobe gently. "Go ahead, Debbie. Pretend it's him."
And so we made love. Had sex. Fucked. I liked it as I thought of a Johnny I would never know, imagined his hands and breath in my ear as I rode to a crescendo and never stopped to think of Tim, who would finish regardless of what I said or did, as always.
When I finally slumped back off him, as our flesh separated, I realized that his slow steady breathing betrayed him. His penis erect in his lap, as if we had not been doing what we were doing for the last fifteen minutes. The TV now blaring loud, as we must have rolled onto the remote. The look in his eyes indescribably sad, as if we were in love, though I didn't know where the thought had come from.