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excerpt: The Sexual Brotherhood of Man

Photo illustration by Smack.
Photo illustration by Smack.

Raymond’s apartment problems were a theme running through their relationship. Whenever Raymond, for some reason, couldn’t stay in whatever sublet or share he had at the moment, he moved in with James.

James’s apartment was a studio, a rather nice one, in Chelsea, as it ought to be, and with a glimpse of the radio tower atop the Empire State Building— but still just a studio: one single room, a kitchenette, a bathroom, and nothing else.

In the four years James had lived in New York, his parents had come to visit only once. They had considered his studio far too small for him, and when he assured them that it wasn’t small at all— not to be in New York— it had just proven to them what they already were convinced of: this city might be an interesting place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. James knew that they would have found it ridiculous to try to fit two people into his space.

And sure, being so cramped was awkward for James, who had grown up in a big house with no brothers or sisters.

But there was also something romantic about living together in small quarters, in making do and letting the confines press them closer together. Raymond had aspirations as a writer, and those aspirations fit well with this romanticism; their life together was gilded by a touch of La Bohème— but was more secure and comfortable, thanks to James’s office job and the fact that he owned his apartment.

* * *

When James was at work, Raymond sat at home, translating romantic slush from Italian into English for a romance press. The novels were always between 144 and 160 pages long, and according to Raymond they all contained the same story; only the names, the sets and the costumes changed— and even that only within fixed frames.

James occasionally saw Raymond at work and he was impressed by the sight. With eyes flipping back and forth between the book and the screen, Raymond typed away at such a speed that James at first got the impression that he was simply copying the text. Only now and then did Raymond hesitate for a few seconds, with hands hovering motionless above the keyboard, fingertips just touching their home keys— and then he’d be hammering away again. When he turned the page it looked like a pianist turning his sheet music without causing any interruption in the flow of music.

Once, James asked him how he could work so fast. Didn’t he need to think?

"No!" Raymond answered with emphasis. He estimated that he spent, well, perhaps half an hour of thinking in the course of translating one of those novels; the rest of the time was just mechanical processing. He knew what the text was supposed to sound like, he knew which words and sentence constructions to use, and he had in his head a library of useful phrases, so he just chatted away through his fingers, saying roughly the same bland trivialities the original did. On the rare occasion that he didn’t comprehend a sentence fully, he just replaced it with a combination of his stock phrases, anything that made sense. That it made sense (on the most superficial level) and that it had the right romantic tone, those were the only two requirements; he wasn’t even obliged to be truthful to the original.

And there was only one source of satisfaction: doing it as fast as he possibly could, challenging himself, not to make it better, because he didn’t know what "better" would mean in this context, but to make it faster, to spend as little time as possible earning the money he needed to get by.

* * *

When Raymond didn’t translate, he worked on his own writing. Sometimes, when James came home from work, Raymond showed him the pages he’d written during the day. Most often, they read like fairy-tales, darkish in tone, sometimes with a touch of science fiction, and occasionally with decidedly adult content.

There was a story about a little boy who held a black vinyl record in his hands, but when he touched the flat surface, it turned out to be just a hole, and he stepped into it and came out in a Paris parlor where a beautiful but somewhat pale lady rejoiced in the company of her extravagantly dressed friends.

There was a story about a CD that turned out to have strange properties. When you played it, it picked up and recorded the surrounding sounds on top of the music it held, so that next time you listened to it, you heard not only the original music, but also your own coughs and hums from your first listening. The guy who discovered the way this strange CD worked lent it to a friend, whom he knew always listened to music while having sex. But the friend lost the CD, which started a fantastic career, going from owner to owner, gathering layer upon layer of real life sounds, creating an ever-changing opera of life.

There was a story about two scientists studying, with growing perplexity, a picture from a bubble chamber. That particle just couldn’t veer off to the left like that, after first having spun to the right. It just couldn’t. It was impossible. And yet it had. But that would mean that some law of nature had been, for a moment, suspended. If that particle moved like that… then anything was possible…

There was a story about a world where the laws of probability had stopped working. The narrator went to the beach on a rainy day, because she wanted to be alone and the beach seemed the least likely place to meet anybody in that weather. But when she arrived, in the pouring rain, the beach was crowded with people, all of them grumpy and annoyed at not being the only one there.

There was another story about a world where the laws of probability also were out of order, but in the opposite way. It was New Year’s Eve, and the narrator decided to go to Times Square to see the ball drop. He thought it best to go there early, because surely the place would be crowded. But this particular New Year’s Eve, not one single other person in the whole city had happened to decide to go to Time Square. So he stood there all alone, watching the anticlimax of the ball’s dropping.

There was a story about a man who woke up in the middle of the night and saw a woman sitting next to his bed, looking at him. "You’re living in an illusion," she told him. "And I’m going to give you two bottles. If you drink the red elixir, you’ll get to stay in this illusion. If you drink the blue one, you’ll see reality. The choice is yours." And she put two bottles on his bedside table and left. But when the man switched on the lamp, he saw that both bottles contained a red liquid.

There was a continuation of Aïda, which started off at the point where the opera ended: the two unfortunate lovers Aïda and Radames, who have not yet had a chance to taste the fruits of their love, are locked up alive in the sepulchre under the altar in the Egyptian temple. The hours pass and they get hungrier and thirstier, and the air gets thicker and fouler. They grow delirious and, in an unexpected turn, start blaming one another for their imminent death. In a weird, frantic dialogue, they discuss how are they now going to spend their last conscious hours: fighting? having sex? killing each other? out of mercy or out of anger? They can’t agree on anything, and finally, Radames rapes Aïda. So, at last, their love was consummated…

There was a story that consisted of nothing but a long and extremely detailed description of two men, twins, floating around in weightlessness while engaged in an act of sixty-nining. They came at the exact same moment, their spasms were perfectly in sync, and both of them shot and received the exact same amount of semen.

There was a story in which every person on earth was hooked up electronically, via a radio communication link and a global fiber-optics network, with another person, randomly chosen, in such a way that when you closed your own eyes, you saw what that other person had in front of their eyes, and when they closed theirs, they saw what you had in front of yours. Which meant that the person who knew most about you in the whole world was not necessarily your wife or husband or boyfriend or best friend, but your video-link partner, a stranger, who might be living in another culture on another continent and whose name you might not even know, since you couldn’t read the characters on the envelopes that this person picked up from the mailbox. Yet you knew all about your video-partner’s sex life and masturbatory habits.

There was a story about a man who stood in his kitchen, preparing dinner, when his male partner came home and said, in a grave tone: "I have taken the test." The silence, half a page long, was filled with the trembling of hands, the sound of breath, the feeling of sweat running from armpits, before the man’s partner finally added: "It was positive," and after another, shorter, silence: "We’re going to have a baby."

There was a story about a man who offered the Devil his soul in exchange for getting to write one single masterpiece of an epic poem. "Deal!" the Devil said, raised his hand and touched the man’s forehead with his finger. In a single night of trance, the man wrote a poem that came to consist of thirty-three stanzas with twenty lines each, plus a six line coda. But when the morning came and the man read through his creation, it didn’t seem like a masterpiece to him. On the contrary: it was quite similar to the three epic poems he had already written, without infernal assistance. All three had received fairly favorable responses when they were published, but they had never been called masterpieces. If anything, this one was a little sloppier, a little cruder. Had the Devil cheated him? The man showed the poem to his literary friends, who said they "liked it;" one woman was even "very impressed," but none called it a masterpiece. The poem was published with the title The Cycle of Evil and did get a slightly more enthusiastic response than his first three poems, but masterpiece? No, no one used that word. The man wondered if the task had been beyond the Devil’s capabilities. Well, then, so be it. The poem had at least given him a bit of success, and he no longer felt the absolute need to have written a masterpiece, and if The Cycle of Evil wasn’t one, then he still owned his soul. The years passed, and while everything else the man had written sank into oblivion, The Cycle of Evil was reprinted again and again, excerpts were anthologized, it was mentioned in works on the recent history of literature, and on the day the man turned seventy, he read, for the first time, a reference to his poem as "a true contemporary masterpiece." More and more people started concurring with that statement, and soon it was an accepted and established truth that The Cycle of Evil was one of the great masterpieces of its time, perhaps even the only one. The man received admiration and honorary titles and became doctor honoris causa at half a dozen prestigious universities. Occasionally, he granted one of them a lecture, in which he didn’t really say anything, but just referred to what he had already said in his one great masterpiece. That was all he could do, because when he read The Cycle of Evil by himself, alone, in the library of the grand château he had bought with the money the poem had earned him, he just couldn’t see what was so great about it. The poem was by no means alien to him— he recognized his own traits in the language— but what was so great about it? By now, he had read scores of doctoral dissertations on his masterpiece, and they all made sense— but he still couldn’t see the greatness. He grew envious of all those who claimed that The Cycle of Evil had given them peak experiences that went beyond anything they had ever experienced anywhere else, be it in art, love, religion, or sex. One late night (a dark and stormy night it was), sitting in his large library, the man invoked the Devil again. The Evil One materialized and asked what the man wanted. Did he have complaints? Did he want to go back on their deal, now that he was old and had gained his fame and fortune and was soon to die? "You wouldn’t be the first who tried to back out of a deal with me, but I’m sorry, my deals are binding." "No, I don’t want to back out of the deal," the man said. "You don’t?" the Devil said. "Well, then what? Oh, now I get it. You want to write another poem, one more masterpiece, one that will let them know, after your death, that your last forty years haven’t been as barren as people say behind your back. Well, you know, you should have asked for that from the start. There’s no clause in our agreement that forces me to oblige— but what the Hell…" and the devil raised a finger and reached out for the man’s forehead. "No, no, no," the man said, shirking away. "One masterpiece was quite enough, thank you." "Oh? Well, then what is it you want from me?" the Devil asked. The man said: "I know my soul will soon fall to you, and I don’t ask you to revoke our deal. I just wonder if you could grant me one little bonus, one little extra favor. It’s something much smaller than letting me write another masterful poem. It’s something that surely will cost you no effort at all." "So what is it?" the Devil asked. The man said: "Make me capable of appreciating, just once, a true masterpiece. Make me capable of experiencing what everybody else say they experience when they read my one truly great poem. I am soon to die, just grant me this, so that our deal will have been worth it for me. Soon my soul is yours for all eternity." The Devil sat quiet for a long time, and the man just waited. He had already forfeited his soul; he had nothing left to offer. He felt himself getting older as he waited, he felt death’s approach. And then a smirk spread on the Devil’s face, and the Prince of Darkness said: "But you’re wrong when you think it wouldn’t cost me any effort to grant your wish. On the contrary: no effort of mine would be large enough. What you ask is simply beyond my power. Had you asked for that from the start, there would have been no deal between us." The Devil looked the man deep into his eyes. "And now, to quote the final line of that poem I let your write, ‘it’s time for your body to sleep.’"

James found several of the stories alluring, but they rarely seemed finished. Often, in the middle of the story, there would be parallel alternatives listed for what would happen next, and then the story would follow one alternative, before suddenly jumping to another one.

But the largest problem, in James’s mind, was that most of the stories lacked anything that could be called a proper ending. The little boy who had entered the Paris parlor hid under a table and watched the gowns and pantlegs of the people milling around it. A woman tripped over his hand, and then the story stopped. The magic CD was bought by a someone in a store for used CDs, and then the story stopped. A woman watched her video-partner commit a murder, and the story stopped. Didn’t end. Stopped.

James read scores of such story-beginnings that caught his interest with their imaginative situations, but after a couple of pages, one sentence reached its end, and after the period, where a new sentence should have picked up the narrative thread and carried the tale onward, there was just the empty page. The frustratingly empty page.

He urged Raymond to try to come up with endings for those stories that just stopped, and to revise and polish some of those stories that had something that could qualify as an end. And Raymond totally agreed and said that he would do that, yes, absolutely, he would go through the stories again, and tidy them up and find some way of pulling the ends together… but James never saw the results. He never saw any revisions of anything Raymond wrote, just new pieces, new sketches, constantly new ones.

The one single story by Raymond that James read that he would consider a practically finished, publishable story, was the one I have described above about the man who made a deal with the Devil.

* * *

They lived close together in James’s studio, and James noticed that closeness bred consideration. At first, they would ask the other one if he needed to access the bathroom, "before I occupy it for a while."

But soon they stopped seeing bodily functions as something that had to be dealt with in solitude. There was a sterling and manly feeling in living so close together that you could no longer be bothered to be discreet. One of them would sit on the toilet and the other one could still come in and take a shower or brush his teeth, unless the smell was bad, in which case he would say so without embarrassment to either one of them. Your stench is no different from mine; mine no worse than yours. They grew as intimate with the bodily functions of the other one as they were with their own. It occurred to James that in a certain way there’s a greater intimacy in having your lover come in to take a shower just as you are wiping yourself, than there is in sex. In sex, there’s usually at least a trace of performance, but emptying your bowels, wiping your ass, that’s not something you do to impress.

There was one time when James was in the shower and Raymond came in to pee. James pulled aside the curtain a few inches, and with water washing down his body, he peeked out at Raymond. A clear jet (just the faintest hint of yellow in it) arched from Raymond’s dick, on which the uncut foreskin was now pulled back, and gushed down into the bowl, brewing a froth of bubbles. The scene struck James as beautiful, so full of intimacy and spontaneous physicality, and he relaxed his own pelvic muscles and let his urine flow and mix with the shower water. Raymond’s stream dwindled, he shook off the last drops, and as he put himself back, he glanced up at James and he must have seen the blissful fascination in James’s face, for he winked, reached in and touched James’s chest with his fingers, and then left the bathroom, shaking water from his hand.

That night, James told Raymond how serene he had felt letting his own urine flow freely in the shower while watching Raymond pee, and a few days later, they were both standing in the tub, hosing down each others’ legs and bellies, aiming as high as they could make their streams rise. James had thought that his height would give him an advantage, but Raymond sure had a high pressure bladder… Then they embraced, rubbing each other to keep warm, now that their wet skin was getting cold. They turned the shower on, washed the piss away, and brought each other off with their hands. And then they filled the tub and lay in the hot water, listening to Monserat Caballé as Norma.

It had been great fun, peeing at each other, so innocent and childish, but the moment James had found most enchanting had been the one when he had caught the inadvertent beauty in Raymond’s pissing.

* * *

And there were other moments of inadvertent beauty: Coming home one night after working late, James heard a strange, high-pitched singing through the door: a twisted unschooled voice, clearly not a recording.

There were no lights on in the apartment, but the New York night sky bathed the room in a cool, colorless twilight— and there sat Raymond, in the easy chair, eyes closed, big earphones cupped over the ears on his bald head, singing to music James could not hear. On the equalizer, red and green diodes— the only spots of color in the dim room— accompanied the unheard music.

It was close to midnight, and the neighbors had already complained once since Raymond moved in about music being played too loud too late at night. There certainly was no reason to believe that they would like Raymond’s live singing better than recorded opera. (Raymond referred to those neighbors as "the music haters"— "They never listen to any kind of music, only rock!") But still, James just stood there, taking in this odd performance, which, for all its comical value, was also very passionate.

What was Raymond singing?

Without the music it was hard for James to identify the piece. He didn’t know Italian, so the words didn’t help him. It didn’t sound like an aria; he got the feeling of hearing one side of a phone-conversation and concluded it must be a duet.

And then he got it: Macbeth, yes, the duet between Macbeth and the Lady, when he is distressed after having murdered Duncan, and she upbraids him for being such a wimp. In his forceful falsetto, Raymond was singing the Lady’s part. His head jerked with the words, and his grimaces seemed to express the Lady’s evil anger as well as Raymond’s own pleasure at witnessing that anger. Then Raymond just hummed along for a while, and James remembered that there was a stretch where the Lady didn’t have any lines. Still humming, Raymond opened his eyes, did sort of a double take, cried out, shuddered back in the chair and pulled off the earphones with frantic hands. Gasping for breath, he said: "Oh, God, you scared me," and reached out his hand for James’s, as if needing to touch him to make sure that it really was James standing there in the darkness, and not the ghost of Banquo who had come back to haunt him a couple of scenes too early.

They listened to the rest of the opera together, over the loudspeakers, with the volume turned down to a level that James decided the music-hating neighbors would just have to live with. Sitting in the easy chair, James at the back, holding his arms around Raymond, who held the libretto for James to read, they followed the drama of Macbeth and his wife’s losing their minds and finally their lives.

That was living together in a studio at its best.

It wasn’t always like that.

* * *

There were times when James resented having to always take another human being into consideration. Things he was used to just doing— switching on a lamp or turning it off, opening or closing a window— now became subject to mutual decisions. "Do you mind if I open the window?" It took but a second to ask, but sometimes he didn’t want to put his acts into words at all. He longed to be able to put on a CD on impulse, without even considering whether he really wanted to listen to that particular CD right then, and without checking if Raymond was in the same mood— and then, on a second impulse, turn it off in the middle of the overture or first movement.

When James left in the mornings, Raymond lay in bed; when James got home at night, Raymond was still at home, sitting at the desk, translating or writing. James figured this arrangement worked fine for Raymond, who was by himself in between, but after being around people at the office all day, James longed for a place where he could draw the blinds and take a nap by himself— alone.

He came home from work one day, and through the door he heard Tristan’s yearning wail— not what he wanted to listen to right then; he was tired, he wanted silence, and with his hand on the doorknob, he wondered if he should ask Raymond to use the headphones, or, preferably, just leave the apartment for an hour or two; it was James’s place, after all, and Raymond had invited himself to live there.

It wasn’t natural to live this close together, week after week, James thought, it just wasn’t natural; you can’t share a studio (even though many people do), you just can’t.

He stepped inside, and Raymond turned down the music to say hello, and seeing the expression on James’s face, he turned it off. He took James’s coat and jacket off his back, like a lackey, urged him to lay down, like a mother, and then sat astraddle his back, massaging his shoulders, like a good lover. And James wondered if he was too inflexible.

But the next day it would be there again: the longing for some time to himself, some space of his own.

He woke on a Saturday morning and got up to have breakfast and read the paper, and he hoped that Raymond wouldn’t wake up just yet, because his sleeping afforded James at least a semi-solitude. But then he was annoyed that he couldn’t raise the blinds, because the sun would wake Raymond up. And he wanted to turn on the radio, because while eating breakfast and reading the paper, he liked non-committal bubble-gum pop music in the background, the kind you can have washing through your ears without really listening to it. Of course, he could put on headphones, but then it wouldn’t be background music.

But his grievances seemed so petty. Didn’t he have any worse problems to worry about than not being able to let the sun in or turn the radio on? Wasn’t he just being overly cantankerous? After all, he knew that Raymond wouldn’t complain about being woken up by the sun or bubble-gum pop music (as long as it wasn’t rock); it was just that right now James wanted to have the sun and the bubble-gum pop music without Raymond’s waking up.

Was he just too uptight? What about the pleasure of having Raymond in his bed at night, what about coming home to find him singing Lady Macbeth in falsetto, what about the beauty of seeing him urinate?

Was it just a fixed idea of his that you couldn’t live together in a studio? A vestige of his upbringing in a big house without brothers and sisters?

He just didn’t know, but when Raymond finally woke up, James greeted him by asking if he had started looking for a place of his own yet. After all, the deal was that Raymond was living there only temporarily.

Raymond said, with a grumpiness that was understandable, that he couldn’t afford a place of his own.

James asked if he had started looking for any place to live, whether it would be of his own or not.

Raymond said that he had.

"Really? Well, what have you found so far?" Why did he bother asking? He knew the answer.

Raymond gave the answer.

"Nothing?" James asked. "Nothing at all? You haven’t even found any ads to call on? Not even one?"

Raymond gave the answer.

James took up the real estate section in which he had circled some ads while waiting for Raymond not to wake up. He read aloud the text for a share in TriBeCa. Seven hundred dollars a month, including utilities. "What’s wrong with that?"

Raymond said he didn’t want a share.

Well, if he couldn’t afford an apartment of his own, then he would have to make do with a share. There were probably a million people in New York who were in the same situation.

Raymond said he couldn’t stand sharing a place with someone he didn’t love.

Which made James fall silent.

Raymond rose from his chair, got behind James and massaged his shoulders, and James asked himself: Don’t I, when it comes down to it, enjoy his presence more than I resent it? Is it just a stupid idea of mine that you can’t live together in such a small space? Why don’t I just give in, when half of the time— no, three quarters of it— I do enjoy it?


Ola Klingberg

Ola Klingberg published his first novel, Onans Book (Albert Bonniers Förlang) in his native Sweden in 1999. The Sexual Brotherhood of Man is his first novel written in English. He currently resides in Jersey City.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2003

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