One of the side effects of being a “sex addict” (ugh, air quotes are once more being heavily deployed) is vanity—how I look, how my body looks. I am driven to wear heels my arches can no longer tolerate. I torture my hair with a keratin-and-formaldehyde process so toxic that most salons have banned it and the place I go to leaves me in the hands of the Korean Lennie from Of Mice and Men—his tongue sticks out the corner of his mouth while he works, he sometimes hits my head with the wrong side of the hairbrush. There is a French poodle that lives in the shop, tethered to a chair, and my friend Kyla jokes that it is like the canary in the coal mine, posted to give the workers a heads-up when the chemical levels reach toxicity.
Hair extensions are snapped into my scalp and contact lenses turn my eyes a Fremen blue, and I still am never happy with what I see in the mirror. Unlimbering the credit card, I spend vast sums of money on clothing and black silk underwear; Church was able to leverage his way into bed with me because I had on a new bra and it was cute and I wanted to show it off. (He didn’t notice; they don’t, generally.) There is no room for dispute—I am a vain woman, and I would rather work on my outsides than my insides.
So in light of all this, it is particularly disturbing to me that one morning, twenty years ago, I woke up and half of my face had quit. It looked like one of those masks that denote comedy and tragedy; on one side, everything was a few centimeters lower, like there was some invisible sinkhole that my features were slumping into. I didn’t know what had happened, but I had been doing a lot of heroin at the time, so I figured this was down to that.
It wasn’t. It was Bell’s Palsy, some kind of neurological tic that shuts down communication along the seventh cranial nerve once in a while and forces me to tape my eye shut when I sleep. It’s not that uncommon; I was just reading that the hot-shit CEO of a media chain had it recently and was freaking everyone out at meetings. But I get it the way I seem to get everything—over and over and over. Every couple of years since I was twenty, there’s at least one neurological brown-out and I further lose my ability to pronounce words with an F or a P.
Mostly it comes back, but there is further slippage with each passing attack, enough so that it’s noticeable in photos. “What’s up with your face?” was the opening line to an email from a suitor on one of the online dating sites. So much of what we perceive as beauty is down to symmetry and youth, and as those things recede in the rearview mirror for me, other things come and take their place. I still think I’m dead sexy; I think I look interesting, that my face has character. But Sketch thought I was pretty, and I miss that: looking at him looking at me.
I carry on with the sex meetings; people are counting days off their last happy-ending massage, off their last extramarital tryst. Some of them have sworn off masturbation, and it freaks me out, as they count days, to know precisely when this or that paunchy stranger last came into his own hands.
As for me, I am getting increasingly hypersensitized to male touch. I go with my friends to a haunted house downtown, unaware that it is Touch-Me Thursday, and accept a glowstick that lets the actors know: touch me. We traverse the winding corridors and through the sets: meat locker with hatchet-wielding pig, zombified strip club, surgical theater with the patient wide-awake and screaming. The glowstick around my neck pulls killers and freaks from their niches and I am cornered and stroked. A man in a rubber mask grabs my hair and I find I am breathing harder.
We leave, and my friends are laughing, and I join them, but I am mentally looking around for another haunted house. I take the glowstick with me. I troll about the internet looking for scarier, more explicit, more intense. Anything with a superlative label.
I go to my sex meeting the next night, and people laugh when I share about this, as people always laugh when you say something in a meeting that is not funny but is somehow relatable. It’s a bark of recognition.
I go to a yoga class after, and the instructor looks like Sketch: tall, bald, cut, features that look like they were hacked out of a mountainside. I spend the class with my eyes pressed to him, chin lowered like a bull about to charge. My chest heaves when he comes over and puts his hands on me, lifting my legs higher. I put my hand on his hairless chest when I thank him for the class afterwards, and give him my deepest eye-contact over tea in the lobby; another girl comes out with her Botticelli red curls a fountain from her ponytail, but I deftly box her out when she tries to join the conversation. This, by the way, is why I would never date a yoga instructor: you would have to be constantly circling him, growling “MINE” at all the encroaching hyenas.
I ask him to crack my back and he wraps his arms around me from behind. I press my ass against him as much as I dare, and lean back into him as he lifts me off my feet and my spine crackles down to my tail. Wobbly on my feet after, I ask after the classes he is taking, having Facebook-stalked the shit out of him, and he tells me about the Kundalini-training he is doing. It’s all about moving the sexual energy up out of your root chakra, he says, into the other chakras so that you can function more creatively.
Since I’ve been practicing this whole abstinence thing, I’ve been writing everyday, for the first time ever. It’s new. Is it because I’m not humping up on every weirdo I can find? I don’t know, but it feels very Sophie’s Choice. My libido or my need to shoot words out my fingertips? Which do I need to feed more?
Halloween is coming up, and my friend Joanne sends me a satirical post on Facebook showing different available costumes for women looking to get their sexy on: you can be a sexy hammer, a sexy envelope, sexy late-stage syphilis. Apparently there is nothing we can’t add fishnets and false eyelashes to.
I love Halloween, have since I was a kid. Sketch and I met and exchanged love-yous and moved in together right around Halloween; it was the one-year anniversary of his release from prison, and his parole officer used to come around and leave us just enough time to hide the cocaine. We dressed up together every year: Batman and Catwoman; Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf; Lecherous Priest and Catholic Schoolgirl.
Sketch likes to describe the evolution of our relationship thusly: we were back-to-back, fighting our demons together. Then we were side-by-side. Then we kept turning and ended up head-to head as combatants. The last couple of years we were together, we didn’t bother matching our costumes. I went as Hit Girl and he went as a Yeti, and we walked in the East Village Halloween Parade one last time. Walking in this parade is the only way to see it; the sidewalks fill up with spectators like caulking from barricade to building. At the end of the route, someone was giving out samples of Nivea which were discarded in the street, and Sixth Avenue was a long slick of moisturizer. Sketch asked me to take a picture of him in his Yeti costume with two police-officers, in commemoration of walking out of prison exactly one decade earlier. He had added a Yankees hat and an I heart NY tee-shirt to the ensemble: a New York yeti. We laughed our way down the slippery streets, holding on to each other.
I want to call him, but I don’t know what I will say, or what I want him to say. I just want a moment of contact with him, any contact. I could bump into him in the street or grab his ankle in a haunted house. I could send him a single emoji: a pumpkin, or a ghost.
He texts me on Veteran’s Day; this feels appropriate; we are certainly veterans of something. It surprises me to see his name on my phone. It’s like getting a text from Santa, and for a few moments, all I can do is blink at it.
He asks if we can talk later, and before we talk, I know it will be the same talk we’ve had before; we love each other, things have to change, why is this so hard?
I feel livelier when I get off the phone, but the next morning, I don’t want to get out of bed to write. I drift through my day like a ghost that begs you to touch her.