Chapter Excerpt

a start

My decision to practice celibacy had nothing to do with prudery or penance, morality or manners, dysfunction, or fear of disease. It had very little to do with sex. It was all about real estate.

What had started out, one year earlier, as a bout of benign computer dating -- a euphemism for online chatting followed by brief encounters, less impersonal than old-fashioned anonymous sex because you exchanged fake names with the person -- had turned into an almost daily ritual that had replaced previous pastimes such as reading, going to the movies, working, exercising, and eating. I'm exaggerating, of course, but by how much, I'd rather not say. For months, I'd known that my habits were slipping out of control, but I figured that as long as I acknowledged my behavior was a problem, it wasn't one.

And then, one rainy September morning -- coincidentally, the same morning Samuel Thompson and Charlotte O'Malley wandered into my life -- I woke up and decided that too much really was enough. I could feel trouble pressing down on me like the low dark sky outside my bedroom window. I lived in a house near the top of a steep, San Francisco-like hill, but rather than a view of the Pacific, I saw from my windows the colorful sprawl of Somerville, Massachusetts -- jagged rooftops and the tight grid of streets -- and in the near distance, the cozy, unimpressive skyline of Boston, minimized this morning by the clouds. The previous owners of my house had installed a picture window in the master bedroom, an architectural feature I frequently deride but secretly love. As I stood looking out through the streaks of rain, a plane dropped from the clouds in its approach to Logan Airport. The sight of it, popping suddenly into view like that, jolted me. For the past year, the sight of airplanes heading toward the buildings of the city had been alarming.

Do something about your life, I told myself, a directive that's usually, in my case, translated as: Stop doing something.

For some reason, a disproportionate number of the men I met online turned out to live in dank basement apartments with minimal, makeshift furnishings that didn't acknowledge the existence of aesthetics -- sofas made out of rolled-up futons, mattresses on the floor, television sets that took up half a room, collapsible bookshelves lined with DVD boxes. I hate DVDs. I'd switched from vinyl records to tapes, from tapes to CDs, from convection ovens to microwaves, from typewriters to computers, from landlines to cell phones, from revival movie houses to videocassette rentals, and as far as I was concerned, that was the end of it. I'd traveled as far along the technology highway as I could, and the sight of those skinny boxes gobbling up space in the video stores (and on collapsible bookcases) was enough to send me into a spiral of despair and dread.

It's always good to take a stand in life, even a completely meaningless one.

I don't mean to be a snob about anyone else's taste or to suggest that my own is worth bragging about. I don't really have taste; I have reactions to other people's. I have opinions. If I walked into my own apartment with anything resembling objectivity (fortunately, an impossibility) my reaction would undoubtedly be disapproval. Too beige. Too many midcentury lines and angles. Too self-consciously symmetrical. Way too clean and tidy. Who lives here? I'd wonder. What's at the center of this guy's life, aside from dusting? But imperfect as my own place was, the fact that I so often connected with men who chose to live unfurnished, subterranean lives had started to worry me. Maybe, if I kept to current habits, my future lay in that direction. Downward.

The night before, I'd spent an impersonal, passionate forty minutes with someone who claimed to be called Carlo. Most of the men I met claimed to have names that were either Latin-lover mellifluous or vigorously American West: Carlo, Marco, Hank, Jake. I usually called myself Everett. My name is William Collins. I wasn't cheating on anyone, wasn't breaking a vow of fidelity, wasn't sneaking a wedding ring into my pocket as I knocked on someone's basement door. But taking on an assumed name seemed to be part of the game, even part of the pleasure, and Everett, being a name that was neither mellifluous nor particularly cowboyish, struck me as unlikely enough to sound real.

Carlo was not young, not old, not unattractive, not unintelligent, not unclean. Clearly not Latin, but never mind. For the forty-minute encounter, it's most important to figure out what a person isn't (not a mass murderer, whew); figuring out what he is requires more time, not to mention the belief that such information might be useful at a later date. Carlo and Everett barely had a present, never mind the pretense of a future.

It all went predictably enough. He pranced around in a jockstrap, got down on all fours, pleaded, moaned, and complimented my height. If you can't be classically handsome, you're no longer young, and your idea of exercise is making plans to go to the gym, it helps to be awkwardly tall. He said "nice" at the appropriate moments and did a little panting thing at the end that turned me on, even if it was clearly one of his rehearsed bits. Afterward, there was that unsettling postcoital silence in which I realized I was with a stranger, noticed the dirty laundry in the corner, and saw that the TV on the bureau was tuned to FOX News. A flushed, scowling commentator was talking ominously about Iraq. I propped myself up on an elbow, ran my finger along Carlo's tan line, and to fill the conversational void, asked him if he'd been on vacation.

He rolled over onto his back and gave me an indignant look. "I'm not interested in sharing a lot of personal information," he said.

"Of course not," I said. "I'm sorry for asking. If it's any consolation, I'm not interested in hearing any. I was trying to be polite."

He pulled on a T-shirt and, satisfied by my lack of interest, said, "I was in Maine for two weeks."

"Ah," I said, and realized that I truly wasn't interested and had no follow-up comment or question.

As I was leaving his apartment, I noticed that he had bath towels -- light blue with appliqué peonies and bleach stains -- tacked over the eye-level basement windows for privacy. At midnight, it had been a detail that had struck me as amusingly tawdry, but now, in the gray light of morning, as I stared out at the rain, it screamed final straw.

The descending airplane disappeared from view behind the skyline of the city; when there was no ensuing rumble or billow of smoke, I got dressed and set up the ironing board in my kitchen. I'd bought a $125 iron from a catalogue that specialized in expensive laundry-related products for obsessive-compulsives. It had arrived in the mail the day before, and I was excited about using it for the very first time. I was pouring verbena-scented water into the thing when it hit me that I should give my sex life a rest for a while. I couldn't take any more dank basements and grim window treatments. You can choose who you go to bed with, but you can't choose his decor.

Besides, I had a lot of New Yorkers to catch up on. My kitchen shelves needed to be rearranged. I had to start paying much closer attention to my job. I'd been meaning to sign up for a class in tap dancing. It was now or never on the question of spirituality and me. And so on, in that irrelevant vein.

Vanity compels me to say that I knew my resolution was about a lot more than the towels, but pinning it on those allowed me to try and change my behavior without diving into the mucky swamp of my psychology. Enough self-deception, in other words, to make it an unthreatening place to begin.

Copyright © 2006 by Stephen McCauley


Excerpted from Alternatives to Sex: A Novel by Stephen McCauley
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