The Benchley day: Wake up and roll off the air mattress. Take the six train uptown. Go to a skyscraper and take an elevator. Enter the doors marked ‘Compliance and User Analysis.’ Enter data for 10 hours, with 30 minutes for lunch. Back at the apartment, check Yahoo! email for Craigslist emails regarding an apartment: ‘You have 0 unread messages.’ Choose: suicide or television. Television. Sleep, repeat.
One thing had improved. Keith had suddenly become cool. Previously he was a true hyphenwad, that is, anything plus wad. But the night after his dog bit my penis, and he and I had our screaming match, I apologized. When you are sleeping on someone’s floor, you must have respect. And Keith apologized, too, swayed by my charm. We started to watch TV together after work.
Keith was not my choice of friend. He didn’t know Tortoise from the Turtles. And a good 80 percent of his conversation was about how incredibly unlaid he was, which got stale. Still, he was a human being in New York who knew the name Gary Benchley.
Keith: God, Matthew Perry is funny.
Keith: And, you know, hot.
Keith: [Long pause, laughing.] God, I need to get laid.
Gary: Well, if Matthew Perry is hot, maybe so.
Keith: I have a thing for straight boys.
It turned out that Keith hadn’t been laid in about eight months. It was a situation that I fully understood.
Gary: That’s rough.
Keith: Tell me about it.
Gary: And I’m surprised.
Gary: You’re a good-looking guy.
Keith: You think?
Gary: Yeah, man. You’re working the skin care.
Keith: [Touching his face, winking] I’m trying.
I have to admit, it felt good to flirt with Keith. No one else had been making eyes. We got into a routine: He’d sit by me on the couch and we would watch Friends. As long as Joey or Chandler weren’t in the scene, Keith would complain about how little sex he got, and I would commiserate. Then he’d explain his incredible sexual technique, and how wasted it was. And I would agree that yes, it was totally wasted. He would go on to explain how he only liked to give, never receive, he was totally into giving, he just loved to give, and then describe some of the ways he liked to give, and I would nod, and murmur appreciatively.
On Friday night, Carl came out of his bedroom with his backpack on, to find us both on the couch. He put his hand on the door: ‘You know, Gary,’ he said, ‘I’m going over to Sue’s. You should feel cool about crashing in my bed when I’m over there.’
‘Dude, bro, thanks,’ I said. The door closed behind him and I went straight to the phone, calling the number Alyssa Illeander had given me last week. With a bed instead of an air mattress, I could bring someone home. After a week of Keith talking about incredible blowjobs, I was ready to explode.
Gary: I was buying a Death Cab bootleg at St. Mark’s, and I found your number in my wallet, and I was thinking, I’d love to go out for a drink with Alyssa again.
Alyssa: That sounds really good.
Exactly. 1) Preparations—physical: Vigorous scrubbing of Benchley nethers, double-brushed teeth, squared shoulders, carefully mussed hair. 2) Preparations—environmental: Hide Carl’s Dave Matthews collection and assorted Internet-traded jam band CDs, sniff the sheets, plump both pillows, prophylactics with nonoxynol-9 under the bed, in reach. 3) Preparations—emotional: Achieve utter balance. Put your hands on the wheel. Let the golden age begin.
Two hours later, we met at a tiny bar with a tin ceiling—her choice. I had chosen a dark booth in the back. She wore a light gray top, woven through with something silver and reflective. She had glitter on her eyelids. Under the track lighting she glowed, and I thought of the time I saw Guided by Voices in Buffalo. I was sitting in a balcony above the stage, and the spotlight caught the top of Robert Pollard’s can of Budweiser, and it shone directly onto my part of the audience, right as Robert sang ‘Don’t stop now, don’t stop now.’ Alyssa kissed me on the cheek and sat down. I asked her what she wanted, got up, and bought two pints. When I came back, she was crying.
It took ten minutes of questioning through the sobbing to find out what was up. The answer was: She was engaged to some douche named Tom.
‘Gary, we met, and you were all I thought of the next day,’ she said. ‘And then you didn’t call, and then you did. And I wanted to tell you to your face why I couldn’t see you.’ She took my hand, and kept crying.
I looked for exit options, and saw the nearly full beer near her hand. Alyssa, I realized, was a sipper. No more than a tablespoon of beer passed her pert, soft lips at a time. So we had at least 20 minutes to go.
In that 20 minutes, she told me about Tom, Tom who didn’t love her, Tom the well-paid asshole with the gorgeous apartment, Tom who fucked her like a beast and then went out drinking with his friends—that’s where he was right now—while kind, warm, enthusiastic, broke-dick Gary sat holding her hand in a bar, his balls turning to dust. Gary Benchley, the true friend.
Watching her cry, I knew Benchley had hit bottom. I had reached the mythical state of total anti-rock, which I call ‘Train,’ after the band. When the head of every drum is torn, and all guitars out of tune, when the microphone melts in your hand, that’s Train, and I was in Train all the way up to my drops of Jupiter.
Finally, the last sip of beer went down her throat, and she had to go meet Tom at a bar uptown. The crying was over. She went into the bathroom to re-apply her make-up, and came back to kiss me goodbye. Since no one else was around to spill a huge bag of emotional shit into my lap, I went back to the apartment and collapsed onto Carl’s mattress. I could hear the condoms under the bed, laughing at me.
I stretched back and began an intense session of troll-flogging, hoping for some release from the pent-up horror of my rock-proof life, and finally got a fantasy worth sticking to: I ignored Alyssa’s pitiful weeping and had my way with her right in the bar, giving her exactly what she wanted, and she screamed my name, Gary, Gary, Gary!—but then the fantasy shifted and I was back in college in Western Civ, listening to a teaching assistant lecture on rape culture. And just like in Western Civ, I had to take an incomplete, drifting asleep with my hand on my thigh. But, because Jesus plays guitar in heaven, I found this in the morning:
The place is right near the L train on Bedford. We need $1,800 for deposit and first month. Noones hear after 10, but if you can make it tomorrow night that would be cool. I can’t make any promises, but it sounds like it will be cool.
Exactly. Spelling aside. I just needed to scrape up the $1,800. I brushed my teeth and took a long look in the mirror.
Mirror Gary: Yes?
Gary: New policy is, eliminate the Train.
Mirror Gary: Noted.
Gary: Get an apartment. People do it.
Mirror Gary: Yes!
Gary: What doesn’t kill Gary Benchley only makes him rock harder!
Mirror Gary: [devil sign]
The devil sign was limp by my standards, but these were difficult times. I walked out of the bathroom to find Keith staring at me.
Keith: Talking to yourself?
Gary: Hey, yeah.
Keith: That’s cool.
Then Keith leaned in and kissed me.
Gary: Oh, hey. Dude, whoa.
Gary: Ah, you know, I’m not.
Keith: Listen. Just listen to me—
Gary: It’s just—
Understand that the homosexual citizen has a true friend in Gary Benchley. When I was a student at one of fine the schools in the SUNY system, I was an active supporter of HOC, Homosexuals on Campus, as well as Q&A, the Queer Alliance, which split from HOC during my sophomore year. Later, I was also a supporter of OCLesGayTransBiActCo&Sup, the on-campus Lesbian, Gay, Transsexual, and Bisexual Action Coalition and Supporters, which was created when HOC and Q&A came back together during my senior year.
So I am fully aware of the complicated issues facing non-heterosexuals in today’s society. But, that said, the secrets of the Benchley bottom, by his own informed choice, were known only to Gary Benchley and a frisky girl in Albany named Kath.
Keith: Look, I know you’re not gay.
Gary: Well, yeah.
Keith: But I was thinking of you and, you know, your problem paying the rent, and—do you know what ‘trade’ is?
Gary: Like, a trade?
Keith: No, like trade.
Gary: [slowly] Yeah, I know what trade is.
It took a while to figure out his plan, and it was a difficult topic to discuss. It went around and around. But eventually Keith got his message across: He wanted to institute a blowjobs-for-rent policy. I just had to lie there, maybe yell at him a little, and when it was over, thank him. Not even any kissing.
Gary: I don’t know, man. That’s not for me.
I walked down to Battery Park and sat on a bench in the rain, sipping a huge cup of coffee. Situation: Tomorrow I would go see an apartment. I needed $1,800, and I had almost that. I would have that by the first of the month if the temp work stayed solid. But I would not have it if I paid Carl and Keith the $700 I owed them.
Carl would probably not care—would probably tell me to forget it, or make it up to him later, I was a guest—but Keith. Keith had that look in his eyes. If I couldn’t pay, Keith would take me to small claims court. Or Keith could pitch a fit and force Carl to make me pay what I owed Carl, too.
Should Benchley leap the chasm? Was there a way back once it was leapt? I thought of my ex-girlfriend Cedilla, who’d introduced me to OCLesGayTransBiActCo&Sup when it was just HOC. She was bisexual, and it was a condition of dating her that I would support her alternative sexuality by attending meetings and on-campus rallies.
Cedilla could choose freely between steak or salad, but she lived in terror of her boyfriends ending up gay. She gave me regular ‘gay quizzes,’ asking what I thought about one passing man or another. ‘Nice ass,’ I’d say. She would make a face like a lemon exploding.
Once, before we broke up, I asked her, ‘What if a guy slept with a man, but it was just a one-time thing? Would you date him?’ She said, ‘I could, but there would have to be a grace period.’ I asked her how long that would be, and she thought for a long time, and said ‘Five years.’
Assume that most women shared Cedilla’s distrust of the fully experienced man. That meant five years of keeping a secret. The alternative was God knows how long on the floor with Keith and Carl, if they let me stay.
No, last night was not Train. This morning was Train, and I was calling all angels. I thought to myself, ‘What would Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips do?’
Wayne: Gary, all you need in life, all you need, is a purpose.
Gary: I’ve got a purpose, Wayne.
Wayne: What is that?
Gary: To rock for the good of the people.
Wayne: Well, goddamn. There you go. Listen, Gary, as you know from countless articles on Pitchfork, I spent my entire adult life keeping the Flaming Lips together. Most of the time, we didn’t have dick. I had to hurt people and make sacrifices. But I never lost sight of my mission. You like The Soft Bulletin?
Gary: I love The Soft Bulletin.
Wayne: What about Yoshimi?
Gary: Actually, I didn’t really—
Wayne: Look, Gary, we’re talking about your mission.
Gary: Get my own place. I’ve got to get a place where I can rock out. That’s the mission.
Wayne: See, me, I’m making a movie in my backyard about Christmas on Mars. I don’t know a goddamned thing about moviemaking—
Gary: Wayne, uh, this is about me.
Wayne: That’s right, Gary, that’s right.
Gary: The mission. The new policy. Pay the rent.
Wayne: You just stick to the mission. Now I’m going to ascend into heaven in a golden chariot, lifted by a huge flock of doves, and throw confetti over the chariot’s side.
Gary: All right, Wayne. And thanks.
Wayne: All right, Gary. I enjoyed our talk. Goodbye. [ascending] Remember—pay the rent.
The oil massage felt pretty good. The oil smelled a little bit like lavender. Keith kept kissing my back, which was strange, but there are worse things. I was beginning to relax. And then it was time. I felt a man’s fingers grip me where no man’s fingers had gripped me before, in a tight circle. The moment was literally at hand. Benchley was about to make the trade.
‘Gary, Gary. Turn over, baby.’ His voice was high, and kind of creepy. I shut my eyes, and suddenly I was outside myself, floating near the ceiling, looking down. I didn’t really feel comfortable with what I saw, so I shut my eyes again.
To be honest, I expected better. Keith had promised that he was an expert at what he was about to do. I had figured it would be awful, but masterful, like Geddy Lee playing bass.
The summer of my sophomore year, I volunteered at a group home for the mentally challenged. One of the guys in the home was named Al. He was about 42, mentally four. Al lived for art therapy, when Mrs. Tornelle would arrive with sculpting clay, or watercolors and brushes, or, one time, origami paper.
Watching Al do origami was bad. He tore the edges. He licked the paper. He folded and unfolded, and shredded. His hands shook (he was arthritic, among his other problems). When he was done, 20 sheets of square paper later, he had something that looked more like a garden slug than a paper crane, and he held it in the air and moved it in a circle, as if it was flying.
Keith’s attention to my dick was like Al’s attention to the origami paper. I have received about 30 blowjobs in my life, and 29 of them were atrocious, so in the category of bad oral sex, I am an expert. But this was unique. It was more as if Keith was performing a tracheotomy instead of giving me ultimate pleasure. I was rapidly losing my steel. And, I knew, a lump of dough does not pay the rent. Reality wasn’t going to be enough.
I leaned back and made a noise, and searched inside myself for an emergency fantasy, the darkest of the dark, screw Western Civ. I cycled through like I was shuffling cards: master of the harem, cheerleader slave colony, coked-up groupies. Nothing. Go deeper. The time I saw my babysitter go to town with a sofa pillow when I was eight. Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth. Pay the rent, Benchley, pay the rent. Wayne Coyne says pay the rent.
And then I found something, something beautiful. I was on stage in a dark club, playing guitar for Cat Power. Who cares what happened to Chan’s regular guitarist? What matters is that I am rocking, but gently. Chan is singing, and I can tell she wants to cut the song off, she’s got that look on her face, she’s singing ‘She Was a Friend of Mine’—no…she’s singing ‘Rockets.’ And before she can stop, I take a little solo, totally unexpected. I look over at her, and she’s laughing at me, but she’s into it. Nothing brash; I mean, it’s Cat Power, just a dozen bars, the words ‘Where do the rockets find planets?’ echoing in my brain. Chan brings it back and finishes the song, and everyone is cheering.
Cut to after the show, we’re all having a beer and a cigarette, and everyone wants to go out, and Chan tells us she’s just really tired and is going to head back to her apartment. And she looks at me, and points to herself, and smiles. Because she keeps an apartment in the city, right?
Cut to her place, lots of recording equipment and Cat Power posters. We’re talking, and she says, ‘God, Gary, I really had to just get away from everyone. I’m so glad you’re here.’ She puts her hand on my arm. ‘You did such a good job playing guitar tonight. It was so totally hot just watching you. And I wanted to cut off that song, right then, before you came out with that solo.’
‘I know,’ I say, ‘and I’m so glad you didn’t. And Chan, let’s be honest, it’s all about you at the piano, and that’s why I’m up there with you, and I’m just glad I could make that work for you.’ We’re close, inches away from each other, and even though she’s 30, who cares. She just pushes her face into mine, and I put my hand on the waist of her jeans, and they’re loose and come down a little, and I can feel her pubes, it’s like that picture of her in the New Yorker.
She whispers into my ear, ‘Rock me, Gary,’ and we get into her queen-sized bed, under the comforter, and she bites my ear and says, ‘Take a solo, Gary, take a solo,’ and I say, ‘Chan, I just want this to last, I want it to be special, I want to go on tour with—’
And then I was gone from there, and back in the apartment, Keith leaning away from me with relief in his eyes and Benchley on his chin. I heard a shuffle, and looked over at Keith’s wall to meet the dachshund eyes of Harris Glenn Milstead, Jr., who had watched it all in utter jealousy, and I beamed a thought directly into his tiny brain: The rent is paid.