Fiction: Balanced Diet
By Don Stoll
Everything about me that Ben considered American amused him. He thought it funny that a home run counted for one run and funny that I didn’t agree that a ball hit past the boundary should count for six runs, as in cricket. Knowing that Americans adored fast-food restaurants, he demanded a catalog of my favorites.
I said, McDonald’s, I guess.
I said, probably Kentucky Fried Chicken.
He asked if I had been to Kentucky. I hadn’t. He quizzed me with a smile, showing off his teeth. He had teeth like a movie star.
I said, and Taco Bell.
I liked Taco Bell the best. A brother and sister named Robert and Yolanda Garcia worked at the one near my house. The manager had told them that he’d hired them for the purpose of adding some authenticity. I had crushes on them and when they worked together, it was painful.
Ben had never heard of Taco Bell. I elaborated.
I don’t understand the Bell, he said. Why a Bell? What’s that got to do with anything?
His luminous smile turned into laughter.
You Yanks are bloody amazing.
My ignorance about Native Americans amused but also appalled him. He would ask whether I knew this or that about Native Americans and smile and shake his head when I said no. Once he asked if I knew any sex stories that involved Native Americans and of course I didn’t. His question had not come out of nowhere: Beautiful Losers lay open on the nightstand. He treated the spines of his books cruelly.
We were squeezed together in his single bed. He was put together like the fine rugby player he had been before destroying his knee. I never tired of running my tongue over the hard muscles in his back and chest and arms and shoulders. He lamented that since his injury he had put on ten pounds, concealing the muscles in his stomach. I would say, almost a stone, because I liked to say stone. He objected because that made it sound like more. I would tell him not to worry, but, secretly, I appreciated his concern. With a harder stomach he would have been even more beautiful. Sometimes during sex, I would shut my eyes and imagine that he had a flat, hard stomach.
I said, I’ve never slept with one.
He said, pity, but I was thinking of their legends and myths and whatnot.
I remembered that I knew one story. In LA, I’d had a girlfriend whose father was a professor. He owned all sorts of unusual books. She had told me that in a collection of Native American legends, there was a story about a tribe whose men devised a trick to overcome the resistance of women who would not sleep with them. They would bury themselves in the ground, leaving their nostrils and the heads of their penises uncovered. The women would think the latter were strawberries.
Ben said, in theory, you could even get the ones who had sailed their cunts away.
He explained that in Beautiful Losers, Leonard Cohen had written that Catherine Tekakwitha had sailed her cunt away. It did not matter who would claim it, a Mohawk brave or a Christian hunter. He said that wild strawberries would have tempted even Catherine Tekakwitha.
But wild strawberries would also have tempted braves, he said. So either the tricksters were as catholic in their sexual tastes as you are, or they belonged to a hunter-gatherer tribe whose strict division of labor allocated all hunting to males and all gathering to females.
I often felt inadequate around Ben. On this occasion I felt pleased to have recently learned the meaning of catholic with a small c. That kept me from embarrassing myself by saying that I thought the pope would disapprove of my sexual tastes.
I envied Ben for reading Leonard Cohen. In the pub where I worked, I would say that at my university back home, I had studied literature until I decided to take a break. But Beautiful Losers was one of countless books that I only wished I had read. My excuse of being young—twenty—was wearing thin. I never admitted that I had come to Australia to hedge my bet: Australia had the Great Barrier Reef, so if I could not force myself to read literature maybe I would become a marine biologist. I tried not to think about the fact that marine biology would certainly require serious reading.
As much as Ben made me take notice of my deficiencies, I also credit him with bringing to my life a sense of calm and stability that I associated with childhood and that I therefore had not experienced in several years. Sometimes I picture my life before Ben as a marble cheesecake. It has equal parts of light and dark, and the light and the dark swirl around one another in a random pattern that isn’t really a pattern. The person making the cheesecake had stirred the chocolate in blindly, not bothering to look down into the mix. The result is not a pattern, but confusion.
But if my life after Ben is still a cheesecake, it’s no longer marbled. It’s almost solidly either light or dark, depending on how much you like chocolate. Let’s say you love chocolate, so you’ve made it almost all chocolate. In that case the light part only makes up a narrow sliver.
Yet the light part remains significant, despite being small. Beginning out on the perimeter, it extends all the way to the center: to the heart. All the concerns that I had about myself and my future were like that.
Ben brought calm and stability to me with his distractions. He took me outside my own life by giving me larger matters to think about.
Do you think hunter-gatherers live more happily than we do? I said. We have so much more than them, but. . . I don’t know. What’s the point?
Maybe I had not left my own concerns entirely behind. Maybe the simple life I attributed to hunter-gatherers tempted me, if only in the moment, because I imagined a simplicity that would have relieved me of such concerns.
Eat more strawberries if you’re unhappy, Ben laughed.
Though he could distract me, he also distracted himself. He constantly jumped from one topic to another.
Unfortunately, the strawberry business would only work in theory, he said.
He threw off our covers.
It works if you think just about the shape. But even engorged with blood, that’s a pitiful strawberry.
I said he was being literal-minded, but he had stopped listening. He was hard at work.
He disengaged. I studied the evidence.
Right, I sighed, thinking there was no point in repeating my objection to his literalism. Not red like a strawberry. But can you give me a minute? I need to pee.
Prostate and defenseless? he said. At your age, you should be able to keep the floodgate shut for this.
He reengaged. Under the illusion of being lifted off the bed, I raised my hands so that my head would not butt against the ceiling.
Struggling to regain my breath, I thought of the previous weekend. His parents were on holiday in France and he had taken me to their country house, built in the nineteenth century with unaccountably low ceilings. By Sunday afternoon, I had just about acquired the habit of ducking in order to pass through the doors. As tall as he was, I never saw Ben hit his head.
Thought you had to pee, he said. Go on.
When I returned, he was on to another topic.
All the pressure your President’s under, you ever worry about nuclear war? I can see it happening like this: to distract from Watergate he rattles his saber at the Soviets, then one thing leads to another. . .
You can have concerns about yourself and your future, but you can also have concerns about the planet. Or about the human species or civilization or whatever. Nuclear war would be a far more terrible thing than the failure of a twenty-year-old American to find a satisfying career. Even at the nadir of my self-regard, I understood this. But I understood objectively rather than subjectively. Subjectively, thinking about nuclear war may have given me a lift because it suggested a career: working to prevent such a war.
Or the lift may have come from recognizing that billions of other people would suffer just as much as I would. The truth is that I was never going to dedicate my life to preventing war. Decades later, anybody who was paying attention would become aware of different kinds of threats to the planet and civilization and every sort of species. The truth is that I was never going to dedicate my life to preventing environmental catastrophe, either.
What made you think about nuclear war? I said.
Well, think what it would mean for sex, he said. In some places the survivors are all alone, so blokes who can give themselves blow jobs would have an advantage. Teammate of mine in an Under 21 match against New Zealand, could see him managing.
I lay on my back. He stroked and pulled on me. Finally, he gave up. But he did not let go. He pointed my dick straight up in the air. He inspected it like he was a shopper who had found something in the produce section that he might buy.
Considering color as well as shape, mushroom makes more sense than strawberry.
I’m not a vegetable guy, I said. I’ve told you that my grandmother’s from England. She taught my mother that you cook vegetables by boiling them until the taste is gone. That’s how I think of vegetables.
He looked at me critically and said, mushrooms are fungi.
He resumed his inspection.
But strawberries are universally admired, he said. Mushrooms aren’t, and you’d want your dick to be universally admired.
He had been using two hands and supporting himself with his elbows. Now he withdrew a hand to support his chin.
Perhaps because mushrooms are often toxic, he said, mumbling because his hand limited the movement of his jaw. But Native Americans would have recognized the toxic ones. And their societies weren’t built on excess consumption and waste, so they would never have passed up edible mushrooms.
He turned toward my face.
You think I’m romanticizing them?
I shrugged. He knew more about them than I did.
Are toadstools poisonous? I said. Or is toadstool another word for all mushrooms? I love that word. Reminds me of fairy tales.
I tried to think of a specific fairy tale of which toadstools reminded me. I imagined a witch dwelling in the middle of a dark forest. Her image evoked the images of Hansel and Gretel. The story of Hansel and Gretel mentions breadcrumbs and the witch’s plan to fatten up and cook and eat the children. However, I think it does not mention mushrooms, poisonous or otherwise.
Meanwhile, Ben’s tongue circled the rim of the head. It made two circles, moving first in one direction and then in the other.
He paused to speak.
Why do people say that dogs have rough tongues? It’s cats that have rough tongues. A cat’s tongue is like sandpaper.
I said, this is a bad time to try to get me to think about dogs’ and cats’ tongues.
He laughed. He had a beautiful laugh. Looking at that imposing body might have led you to anticipate a laugh that would appropriately be described as hearty, or booming. In fact, his laughter was like the music of the kind of gentle stream that you hope to find high up in the mountains, after a long climb has left you both satisfied and insatiably thirsty.
Your mum’s only ever boiled mushrooms? he said. You haven’t had them sliced thin and sautéed in olive oil?
His grip had grown slack. I put my hand on his to signal that I wanted it tighter. He adjusted. The feel was perfect. He licked me along the length: head to base, then base to head.
Lazarus, come forth! he said.
There was no resurrection. At twenty I could recover swiftly, but he was expecting a lot.
Suppose if I want a miracle, I should try loaves and fishes, he said.
He got up from the bed.
Going out to buy eggs and mushrooms. Make you the fluffiest omelette you’ve ever had in your life, convert you to a mushroom-lover.
He stood over me. He was gorgeous. I reproached myself for wishing that he would drop a few pounds. I was lucky to have him exactly the way he was. I felt ungrateful.
In that moment I believed fervently that Ben would belong to me and that I would belong to him always. At age twenty it was not possible that I should discern the profound irrationality of my conviction and I am pleased that in my young manhood I possessed the capacity to hold on with such ferocious strength to something as insubstantial, and as likely to crumble at the touch, as the idea of a love that would endure forever.
Not to suggest that of all the lovers who have loved me or of all the beloveds whom I have loved, Ben loved the most or was the most beloved. When I was approximately twice twenty, I knew a red-haired woman named Christine, who had not merely read Leonard Cohen but had written a doctoral dissertation about him—the music rather than the novels—and whom I had met in a cavernous and otherwise deserted record store, where we ignored all the other music in order to reach at the same time for the store’s only copy of the first Songs album. She spoke. I heard that she was English.
Some people say everything happens for a reason, there’s no such thing as a coincidence. That’s theological rubbish. But when you have a happy coincidence, you ought to make the best of it.
She was not half Ben’s size. She was slender everywhere. She had slender silken breasts like the petals of a bird of paradise. She loved me as much as Ben had loved me and I loved her as much as I had loved Ben.
But because I was no longer twenty, and being loved by Christine and in loving herI no longer believed that in our love I had discovered a site of permanent rest. With Christine I proceeded with caution because I anticipated that at any moment—although that moment surely lay far in the future—I would come upon the worm in the apple and that at any moment she would find equal disappointment.
Standing over me Ben said, you’re hungry, right?
I did not answer.
You’ve got to be hungry. Shall I get dressed and nip down to the market?
Let me do something for you first, I said.
I perched on the edge of the bed. He understood. I thought of the fairy tale property that mushrooms have of being able to spring up overnight after a good rain.
Don Stoll lives in the Southern California desert. His fiction appeared last year here in A Thin Slice of Anxiety and more recently in Eclectica, Terror House, and Jupiter Review. In 2008, Don and his wife founded their nonprofit karimufoundation.org which continues to bring new schools, clean water, and hospitals to a cluster of remote Tanzanian villages.