By Joe Meno
All of us are in the car when my wife asks me what I want for my birthday. I give the answer I have been thinking about for several weeks. “I would like a blowjob in a semi-public place.”
She frowns and glances behind us at the kids who are both asleep, as if saying the word “blowjob” will age them, magically changing them into pubescent fifteen year olds right before our eyes. But neither of them blink.
“A blowjob?” she asks.
“A blowjob,” I repeat.
“And where exactly is this blowjob supposed to happen?”
“Hopefully somewhere in the vicinity of my penis.”
“Funny,” she smiles. “Our management will take it under consideration.”
But then it’s my birthday and nothing happens. We get a babysitter, go out to dinner with some friends, I drink too much, then drive back home. In the dark we pull into the garage. She looks at me and then turns and puts on the radio. “Life on Mars” is playing. “You sure about this?” she asks and I nod, then lay my head back and feel like I’m falling. I suddenly get the sensation I am not as old as I am, like any moment two of us might be interrupted, like we are teenagers, even though we never knew each other then. Who would have ever thought that’s a feeling anyone would want? But it is. The uncertainty, the not-knowing. I watch the indistinct shapes on the glass, the frames of light. The Bowie song feels like a mercy.
When I was twenty I was as lost as I’d ever be. I worked at a head shop on Belmont and Clark in Chicago and did I did a lot of stupid things. I did a lot of drugs and sometimes stole from the cash register. I spent my days waiting to get arrested. The assistant manager Paul was something of a mother to us. He always had a Vicodin or Sudafed if you were feeling lousy. He was the first actual person I knew who had AIDS. He had caught the virus from a boyfriend who had slept around. He was in his late thirties but looked much older, thin, tall, with a closely-shaved beard. Sometimes he’d ask to borrow a cigarette, but the rule was he wasn’t supposed to smoke, so you were supposed to kindly say no. But I always gave him a cigarette if I had one. He was the only adult I knew whose mind was as dirty as mine. He watched porn all the time, even in the office at work. He always claimed to like the shape of my legs. He always said he liked guys with hair on their legs.
One day he started going downhill, and the month after that went into hospice. I went over to his place to visit one Saturday and brought him flowers, but the hospice worker took them from me and said they weren’t allowed. Something about the pollen. I felt stupid for bringing them. Paul was lying on a hospital bed in the middle of his tiny apartment. His face looked white and purple. He smiled when I walked in. He and the hospice worker, who was middle-aged, also gay, had been playing cards. I took a seat across from Paul and asked how he was feeling.
“Horny,” he said with a laugh. Then he asked if he could see my legs.
I lifted the cuff of my pants. Paul grinned. “You got here just in time. We were talking about blowjobs. Patrick here was telling me about the best blowjob he ever got.”
“It was with some guy,” the hospice worker, Patrick, said. “In the alley behind Berlin, over on Belmont. It was a total car wreck. We barely said any words to each other at all. One minute he was going down on me and the next minute it was over and I never saw the guy again. I think he was Austrian maybe. There was something Austrian about him. It felt good to be anonymous.”
I grinned and asked Paul, “What about you?”
“It was the first time. I was thirteen. My parents were involved in the church. My dad was a youth minister. I used to fool around with the all the boys who showed up. There was one boy who was a little bit older than me. He gave me a bj, then showed me what to do.” Paul gave a strained smile. “Every blowjob since then’s been a letdown. Like you try to get back to the first one, before everything.”
I smiled. Patrick the hospice worker’s digital watch went off just then. “Time for your shot,” he said
He prepared a syringe with morphine and carefully inserted it into Paul’s IV. Soon Paul’s eyelids began to flicker. His face looked like a painting. “Come, come, come, come,” he began to whisper. It sounded like a prayer. Patrick set the needle down, pulled a blanket up to Paul’s neck, and then looked at me and said, “Why don’t you put a record on?”
I was fifteen and ready to be laid. I worked at an ice cream store: an ice cream store is absolutely the last place in the world you should work if you are trying to get laid. Nobody but families and fat people ever came in. But there was an older girl, Chrissie, who was eighteen, who also worked there, and even though she didn’t seem to comb her hair and had a line of acne around her mouth, she was attractive because she had a great laugh and was three years older than me. She also had breasts like a grown woman, and something about that felt slightly incestuous but also kind of sexy. She wore a jean jacket, broke up with her boyfriend by storming out of his Camaro in the middle of the parking lot in front of the ice cream store every day, and was the only person I knew who listened David Bowie.
She played him all the time on the store’s stereo. I didn’t know what to make of him. Was David Bowie Ziggy Stardust or he just singing about him? I had no idea, I was used to the lyrics of Motley Crue, Metallica, Slayer, Van Halen. Listening to David Bowie was like doing fucking homework. Also singing about outer space and time travel did not seem very cool. Also I couldn’t wrap my mind around how he looked. He had white make-up and fucking orange hair. He looked like the old Asian lady who worked at the Chop Suey place across the strip mall. What girl thought that was attractive?
One night after work, Chrissie invited me to a party at one of her friends. “You’re in charge of the straws,” she said. I took as many straws from the ice cream store as I could carry. We got to the party and I watched her friends drink beers with the straws because they said it would get them drunk faster. I looked at them like they were exotic animals, like I had somehow snuck inside the zoo, to see what they did after visiting hours. Suddenly I realized I was the only guy there. I thought if I was quiet no one would notice and I would end up getting a handjob out of pity. Eventually Chrissie leaned over to me and said, “My boyfriend won’t let me put makeup on him.”
“I don’t blame him,” I said.
She looked at me shrewdly, quickly identifying all my obvious weaknesses. “You know you have really nice lips. They’d look great with some lipstick.”
“Yeah, I’m not going to let you put lipstick on me.”
“How about some eyeliner then?”
All I could do was look at the fullness of her tight sweatshirt. “Okay, but not out here,” I said. We went into one of the bathrooms upstairs. She took out her makeup bag and an eyeliner pencil. I didn’t think I had ever been this close to a girl her age before.
“David Bowie wears makeup all the time. You know, he and Mick Jagger used to sleep together, right? They used to give each other head.”
“They did. Don’t blink. It’s true. David Bowie’s wife walked in on them one time. There’s even photographs.”
“You’re telling me Mick Jagger’s a fag?”
She shrugged. “He’s not a fag. He just does what he wants.”
Something about the moment overtook me. I put my hand on Chrissie’s breast and then leaned toward her, open-mouthed. But this is not the story about me getting my first blowjob. This is not the story where I put my hand on her breast and the two of us passionately kiss. This is the story where I put my hand out, then she looks down at it and shakes her head exactly like an older sister, before I slowly pull it away. Afterwards I walk home in a daze, in the dark, makeup on my face, feeling like something important has happened to me that I don’t quite understand. I never make it home. In some significant ways I am still that kid. There’s makeup on my face, and I’m still walking home alone in the dark.
Joe Meno is a fiction writer and playwright who lives in Chicago. He is the winner of the Nelson Algren Literary Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Great Lakes Book Award, and a finalist for the Story Prize. He is the author of several novels and short story collections. He is a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. His latest is a novel, Marvel and a Wonder.