Bad Sex With Steve Almond

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This is all taking place in El Paso, during the late '80s.
    I have graduated from college and come to the desert to write cloying newspaper reviews of metal bands. My own hair is thick and clumpy. I'm convinced I'm going bald. My wardrobe expresses the basic vibe of "Bohemian ragpicker." I am wretched, though it will take several years before anyone bothers to explain it all in detail.
    The liaison takes place eleven months after my arrival. I am living in a basement apartment in Five Points, through which the hot water pipes for the entire apartment run, causing the temperature in my bedroom to hover between ninety and ninety-five degrees. When I complain about this, my landlord sends a man over to insulate the pipes with foam rubber. This lowers the temperature to eighty-five degrees.
    It can be assumed that I do not have a girlfriend.
    It can be assumed that I have not had sex for a full year, which, at age twenty-one, feels like ten years. I have access to very little


pornography in these days, because I am frightened of going to the sort of shops that would supply me some, frightened of what my presence there would say about me, which would be true. I do find an actual porno film while house-sitting for a friend, and nearly weep when I cannot figure out how to work the VCR. (VCRs are new inventions.)
    One evening, I receive a phone call from a girl with a thick German accent. I am fairly certain this is a wrong number, or a prank. Her voice, though, does sound vaguely familiar.
    "This is Gabi," she says, over and over. "Is this Steve?"
    It finally dawns on me: Gabriella! The girl I met while traveling down the Aegean Coast of Turkey after my sophomore year in college. Back then, she was traveling with a friend named Kai, a sweet, muscled fellow who looked exactly like Adonis as rendered by Titian. The three of us spent a week together, eating fish grilled before our eyes and drinking raki and lolling on a beach of almost unimaginable beauty. Later, I visited the two of them in Munich, where they took me to sun-dappled parks and blue-lit jazz clubs and treated me, in general, with a baffling kindness.
    Now Gabriella is on the phone and I am thinking of her body in a white bikini, the fabric so delicately rounded beneath her breasts, and trying to act like a confident adult male. She tells me she is in St. Louis, studying to be a

She embraces me. We try to have a moment.

nurse. It is unclear why she has traveled to St. Louis for this purpose, and I don't care. I spend twenty or so minutes trying to figure out how to invite her to visit without begging.
    We talk a few more times on the phone and one night, remarkably, she suggests coming down on a train to visit me. (Like many people, she is unaware of where El Paso actually is.) It will take me several years to figure out that Gabi is profoundly lonely, that she has combed her address book for the single person she knows in America.
    At the airport, she is more striking than I remember, nearly as tall as me. I am vaguely disappointed that she is not wearing a white bikini.
    Our visit is well-intentioned but awkward. We eat inexpensive meals. We bowl. We visit Juarez. She buys a bracelet that turns her wrist a pale green. She sleeps on the spare mattress, because I have not figured out that I should be sleeping on the spare mattress. I am unable to fathom how I might make a pass at her. The closest we come to intimacy is the fact that my bathroom does not have a door. On our final night we go to see a film called Au Revoir Les Enfants at a local museum. This is Gabi's decision. It is the only foreign film playing in El Paso.
    Neither of us is prepared for the movie.
    It is about a French boarding school during World War II. Two boys — one of them a Jew in hiding — become best friends. The Nazis show up at the end and take him away. It is unbelievably sad. Afterwards, we wander outside. I am feeling very Jewish and awkward. Gabi walks in front of me, a bit unsteadily. I call after her and she shakes her head and shakes her head again and when she turns she is weeping, inconsolably, and apologizing to me for the actions of her forebears.
    I stand there, unsure what to say.
    Gabi continues to whisper in her thick German accent about how terrible she feels. Illuminated by the streetlights, she looks
like a figure straight from Leni Riefenstahl: statuesque, blond, with exceedingly white teeth and blue eyes.
    She embraces me. We try to have a moment. We hold hands and talk about how awful evil is. I assure her there are no hard feelings.
    At home, we try to go to sleep. But Gabi is still feeling bruised, so she climbs into my bed and we cuddle.
    Then, a strange thing: she begins fiddling with my pajama bottoms.
    She has a determined expression on her face, something that has nothing to do with sex, that has, instead, the dutiful, slightly
grudging look of restitution.
    It now occurs to me that I am going to be the recipient of a Holocaust pityfuck. It is a horrible realization, and it is followed by an even more horrible realization: I am going to accept my Holocaust pityfuck.
    Gabi is wearing a long white T-shirt, out of which she wriggles, and her body is what her body was two years earlier, on the beach in Turkey: long, bronze, womanly. I should be celebrating, but there is a somber cast to the moment. She is unveiling a blood offering.
    Gabi has hold of me now. I feel small, very helpless in her patient hand. She moves down my body and takes me into her mouth and her hair is in the way and I'm relieved. I can hear her breathing through her nose, snorting a little. Her slender haunches shine in the dark. I touch her hair and she freezes up a little. I cup her breasts. I try to decide if I can

I can't actually feel her.

touch her nipples. She slips away and flips onto her back and pulls me onto her.
    All this is happening to me, but I'm not really there. I'm watching us from above, flinging our bodies around. I want to ask if I should put something on, but am too embarrassed.
    Then I am inside her and it is crushingly uneventful. Sex, to this point in my life, has been an event. It has been: I am inside! It has been: I can feel your pussy! But this is something else. I can't actually feel her — just a vague warmth around my swollen glands.
    We are not going to kiss. There is no room for that. Her neck smells of Bactine. We are both quiet, trying to get through this thing. My meat. Her meat. I pump my hips, like the small, ineffectual animal I am. Passion is not a necessary ingredient. I am twenty-one years old.
    Toward the end, a strange phrase pops into my head: Sex is an act of collaboration. It drifts up to the ceiling and lodges just past the hot water pipes. Then I'm done, we're done, and everything goes still.
    Gabi says of my performance, with a sudden, awful sympathy: "It's all right."
    It is many years before I can think of this event with the proper sympathies. How sad and homesick Gabi must have been, how eager to lose her composure. And how far I was from the delicate truths of erotic connection, how lost in weeds of shame.
    We lie on our backs and try to sleep. After a few minutes, Gabi returns to her mattress.
    "Okay," I say. "Do you need anything?"
    She doesn't answer.
    I stare at the ceiling and the words are still there.  

Previous Bad Sex

Steve Almond's new essay collection is (Not that You Asked). It is, like much of his work, filthy.

©2006 Steve Almond and

Commentarium (7 Comments)

Feb 28 06 - 6:48am

aw... we've all been there. ive been living in france for the past 3 years which means LOTS of lonely evenings spent walking the streets looking for... im not really sure, or sleeping with men who were just 'nice' but not wonderful lovers. i know how Gabi must have felt (minus the nazi guilt).

Feb 28 06 - 9:19pm

this guy's not that great of a writer..

Mar 01 06 - 2:23pm

really thoughtful, mp! i'll bet you can write about this sort of stuff lots better. plus, you'd use cool smiley faces, right?

Mar 03 06 - 7:11pm

This was good, and touches on an important really does often take us years to see how things truly were.

Mar 05 06 - 6:27am

Wow, that was painfully pathetic. Takes me back to my high school days. Ha, ha!

Oct 07 06 - 4:21am

This vignette fulfills the obligation of good literature and made me forget I was reading something; convincing me I was experiencing it. Witty and honest.

Sep 07 11 - 7:24am
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Jm3DBO Yeah� I read and I understand that I do not understand anything what it is about:)))