Converts

By Eleanor Levine


We go to Foghorn's, which has the flag of Texas and is devoted to good steaks. There are frontier cowboys on its walls, and the manager comes up to our table and says, "Welcome to Foghorn's." He also gives us a free appetizer coupon we can use next time.

*

A week later, Oscar's girlfriend Christine says, "Your sister hit on the waitress at Foghorn's—it was really embarrassing!"

"Why did you do that, Agatha?" he asks me on the phone.

"What the fuck is she talking about?" I wonder.

*

This is how I see it:

We go to Foghorn's: my mother, Aunt Sherri, Oscar and his tobacco breath paramour. We eat at a huge table and a blonde waitress named Maggie asks, "May I take your order?"
"I'd like whatever you're having," is my response. She has multi-colored buttons declaring the restaurant's specials.

The waitress politely grimaces.

Christine chimes in, "You look familiar. Did you go to Lakewood High?"

"I went to Jackson and my boyfriend's from Lakewood."

"Really?" Christine, who is ten years Oscar's senior (has asked him to buy a $1,000,000 life insurance policy) rolls her eyes at me and triumphantly acknowledges Maggie. Maggie probably doesn't make enough money to sit in Christine's kitchen, but for now, her existence is a wondrous thing.

Maggie writes down our orders in messy handwriting, with the bs and ts interfacing with the vowels. When she's three meters away, I mumble, "Her behind is cuter than a pony's." My dinner mates are slightly shell-shocked because their world, that is, Central New Jersey, is not the West Village (even if Orthodox Jewish men cruise each other's reading material over frappuccinos at the local Barnes and Noble café).

*

This is how Oscar (who sees everything through Christine's eyes) remembers:

"Hey baby," I flirt, "my name is Agatha and I want to have your baby. Want to go on a date?"

Oscar and Christine stare disparagingly at me.

"That's completely sexist," retorts Christine, who five minutes before was grabbing my brother's three testicles. Christine recurrently informs us that Oscar has three testicles, and bitterly points out that it was "child abuse because your mother did not have one surgically removed!"

Aunt Sherri, who is in her 60s and is slightly more progressive than my mother, who is in her 80s, adds, "Agatha, you shouldn't even whisper those things. It's awkward for the waitress, if she hears you."

The key word that any historian would cite is "if."

*

Oscar insists that I was acting like "a pimp over steaks."

"Christine squeezed your balls at Foghorn's—"

"You're a whore—" he hangs up.

*

I hope Oscar didn't really hang up.
I am holding a phone receiver in my childhood bedroom, where I grab a wrinkled copy of The Village Voice and look through its personal ads.

In the 1970s, The Voice had the best male-to-male ads: men who like straight males, bi-males who want to bond over shish kebob, dudes who want to decorate their genitals with fruit before fellatio—all varieties in the faygelah sphere. Nowadays, classifieds are bland and most guys want to meet at Subway for a low-fat tuna hoagie.

*

When I was 13, I'd drool over my mother's Leaves of Grass, reading "I Sing the Body Electric."

"Yowl!" I'd greet "apprentice-boys" wrestling, their escapades in the countryside. I am enticed by the firemen's "muscle through clean-setting trowsers" and their "waist-straps" bring me unfettered feelings in size 12 Wranglers.

I became less literary at 16 and discovered the Voice ads, which, although they aren't as refined as Whitman, gave me quicker sparks. "Straight guys interested in having a one-night affair with a similar Joe" or "Bi-man would like to have an encounter with bi or married dude in the woods" are sexy.

I have since traversed through Craig's List where they have photos of effeminate men in tight flowery undies and Teddy Bear dudes cuddling their hairy mates. Like Wikipedia, Craig's List is infinitely more expansive than Encyclopedia Brittanica.

*

After Oscar hangs up, I realize that I am in New Jersey, having been fired recently from a job in North Carolina. I don't drive a car and Mother monopolizes the TV with her soap operas and cooking shows.

Life here is as happening as a spider breathing, so I go on my brother Harold's computer and Google some free men-on-men videos until I come to a site called Converts to Gay where men place personal ads seeking straight boys who'd like to experiment. The straight ones visit the "gay"apartments where they are filmed being seduced by the experienced gay boys. My friend Eric thinks "all these men are gay," that it's impossible to get "real guys who want to be fairies let alone videotape 'em."

"You can't fake this," I tell Eric, citing examples: a religious Jewish shipping clerk and Catholic lawyer commingle; a painter, who has a Tupperware business on the side, reaches a state of near bliss when he meets Franco, a muscled ex-porn star; Hank, who has seven children, has seconds of guilt but succumbs to one night with Friedrich.

Converts offers free video shots. The gratuitous videos induce me to do the "$4.95 Special" where you can see lengthier montages.

Johnny the construction worker visits Friedrich the Dutchman. Friedrich is the "converter."

"Hello, how are you—come on in?" Friedrich greets him, smiling at the camera and me.

"Fine," the construction worker nervously shakes hands with Friedrich. Friedrich is moderately muscular and has a receding blonde hairline.

"Cool," responds Johnny, who wears tight denims and has a goatee. He looks like a hipster white boy.

"Do you mind if he films us?" Friedrich asks.

"No, that's cool." Friedrich sits next to Johnny, who folds his hands.

Every episode has the same apartment backdrop—a gray brick wall without photographs or posters.

Then the website closes the video. "If you want to see more, please sign up for a REAL CONVERSION for $45." I grab my credit card and return to the screen. It takes a minute for the movie to start again.

"Why don't you take off your clothes?" Friedrich says gently in a Dutch accent. He quickly helps Johnny take off his clothes. Friedrich grins at the straight man's muscles; it must be like this for Long Islanders who visit the Old City in Jerusalem, carrying the cross with their fellow Armenians—they find themselves in the crumbling rock tunnels during the Intifada.

"Yeah sure, dude, no prob," is Johnny's response.

"You have nice arms," says Friedrich and he starts kissing Johnny.

Johnny and Friedrich are making out like those red plastic birds that repeatedly dip themselves in water on my mother's window sill.

You see their bulging cucumbers. I am in a state of euphoria…and then my mother enters the room.

"Agatha, what are you doing?"
"Uh….some research on the Internet, Mom," I look down at the computer screen, which shows two men exchanging spit.

"Aren't you ashamed of yourself?" she scolds her 50-year-old. I wonder if she's going to put Ivory soap in my mouth. "At your age, and your mother catches you watching these vulgar—"
"It's a passing phase, Mom."

Besides, my brother Harold is gay, and "I'm going to share the costs with Harold."

"Hurry up, Agatha; I need you to vacuum." She's more angered by my domestic negligence that an aberrant sexual indulgence.

Despite Mother's continued naggings, I view five or six hours' worth: a tennis instructor meets a new partner, an unemployed deejay spends time without his chicks, a wannabe rapper humps Friedrich, a skinhead seduces Klaus (a German converter), and a construction worker gets a blow job.

*

When Harold comes home, he's furious, as Mother has informed him about my illicit activities. He contends the CIA might be unhappy with the porn site's cookies in his Dell.

"You know I work for the government, Agatha!" Harold is a taxidermist in the wildlife section of a Federal zoo. He stuffs dead coyotes and wolves and Mexican ladies sew them. Whenever he gets stopped by a police officer for speeding, which is not infrequent, he flashes his ID. He has not received a ticket yet.

"Would you like to split the fee, Harold?" my offer makes him angrier, although he meets men on the Internet, "but that's my business," he says.

"How much did it cost you?" Harold looks like some of the guys on the website.

"…only $45…"
"You're not working, Agatha. Aren't you supposed to pay Mommy rent?" Harold puts his hand through his hair. He's already threatened to change the password so I won't have access to his computer.

*

"Hello," I call my therapist in North Carolina, "I've been watching X-rated gay male movies..."
"Are you lonely, Agatha?"
"I suppose." It's less fattening than the apple pie I devoured in my Charlotte apartment.

"You're setting yourself up for immediate rejection," he notes in a hoarse voice. He is aware that I have no money, and we only speak if it's an emergency.

"Agatha, if you spent the $45 on therapy, it would be more rewarding." You can hear him "tsking" and tapping a pencil on his desk.

"Perhaps I can get a refund…. I have a few days to cancel." I tell Dr. Marble that I'll call their customer service line.

"That would be fine," he says after I promise to phone him next Tuesday.

*

"Hello, this is Converts to Gay, may I have your credit card number, please?" a nasal voice asks.

"Hi…there…"
"May I help you, please?" the voice pauses to more silence.

"Hi there—I er—accidentally signed up for Converts to Gay." I wait a minute.

"What do you mean you accidentally signed up? How can you accidentally sign up?"

I do not respond to his question.

"Okay," he hums, "what's your name?"

"Agatha Stern…" he seems slightly startled, but nonplussed.

"Agatha, huh? Well, you're not the first. But is this—is this your first time with us?" he has little empathy and reacts as if I am getting arrested by the local police for entering his private property.

"Yeah," I sigh.

"Yeah what—?"

"Look, sir," I plead, hoping "sir" will not buttress his anger.

There is an interlude of five seconds that moves like nonstop traffic in Brooklyn.

"Okay," he speaks and my blood pressure rises, "here's your cancellation code—but don't do it again." He's like Oscar reprimanding me after lunch at Foghorn's.

I write down the number and praise Jesus as if this dude were the Lord, but before I can offer my extreme gratitude, he hangs up.

"Hello, anyone there?" No one answers, so I put the receiver down, not even jubilant about the money. I remember that the Village Voice is on the floor and perhaps a dog-eared copy of Leaves of Grass is under the bed.

 

Eleanor Levine’s work has appeared in Fiction, The Denver Quarterly, Midway Journal, The Toronto Quarterly, The California State Quarterly, Prime Mincer, Happy, Penumbra, Milk and Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry, Downtown Poets (anthology), New York Sex (anthology), The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Blade and other publications. She has work forthcoming in The Evergreen Review and OVS Magazine. In 2007 she received an MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins University in Roanoke, VA. Eleanor is currently a copy editor in Collingswood, NJ, and lives in Philadelphia, PA, near the Melrose Diner, where the food is infinitely worse than it used to be. Her website, The Eleanorian, is located at http://eleanor_levine.typepad.com/.

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