Category Archives: Creative Non-Fiction

Things We Have Saved

by Mia Sakai

My parents moved five times in the first ten years of their marriage. My younger brother’s birth was sandwiched somewhere between moves number four and five, four being the one that sent us sailing up the coast from Los Angeles into the San Francisco Bay, and five being the one that shot us into the landlocked heart of Southeast Asia.
Some of my earliest memories are of my brother’s birth: my father on the phone, coils of telephone cord looped around his hand as he calls the family doctor. His long, shaky breath, the words: everything’s going to be all right. If I think hard enough, I can even see the half-finished glass of orange juice next to my mother’s bed in the maternity ward. I remember the sight of bright IT’S A BOY! balloons bobbing overhead, gifts brought by Grandma Shig and Grandpa Roy.
A few days after Paul was born, my mother brought him home to Pomona Avenue in El Cerrito, where we lived in a tiny house with warm charcoal shutters and front steps that looked like they were smiling. To prepare for his birth, she had lined the kitchen drawers with new contact paper, repainted the interior of the house, and laid out a new carpet in what used to be my room. Two final memories: the strange new slackness of my mother’s belly and the curious smell: bleach, warm body, old milk, on her clothing after she came home from the hospital.

There is a tiny, wrinkly person without eyebrows sleeping in my bedroom. I am three years old and hiding under the crib. It is dark and smells like new carpet. My back hurts because I have been curled in the same position for so long, and since no one knows where I am I may have to stay here forever.
My brother begins to cry; soon I hear my mother’s footsteps in the hallway.
“Paul Boy,” she sings, “Paaaaul Boy…” Her pale feet appear in front of the crib, glowing against the deep blue of the carpet.
“Mommy?” I say. “I’m stuck.”
“Where are you, honey?” She sounds startled.
“Here,” I say.
I see her face peering at me through the shadows. “What are you doing down there, sweetie? Do you want me to help you get out?”
“No,” I say, and shrink into the wall. “I don’t want to come out.”
“Well, you come out when you’re ready,” she says, and disappears from sight. “I’ll be waiting right over here.”
My brother grows quiet, and the sound of my grandmother’s old rocking chair fills the room, a rhythmic crick-crick, crick-crick.

Before my brother was born, I told my parents it would be a good idea to name him Johnny, after Johnny Appleseed. I’m not sure they much cared for my opinion; in the end, my vote was cast aside and he entered the world as Paul. Paul like ball. Like bathroom stall. Like crawl and wall, and please don’t fall. I was disappointed, but since my parents were considering becoming overseas missionaries it made sense that they wanted to name him after the man who spearheaded the first century Christian movement. I should have seen it coming, especially since part of the reason I had been named Mia was because it translated so easily into other languages. Never mind that ‘mia’ means mine in Spanish and Italian, wife in Thai and Lao.
My mother admits that there was a time when she toyed with the idea of naming my brother Grey, a name I think would have suited him well. He is prone to bouts of creative angst, artistic genius, and mild depression, and as he matures into young adulthood, there are many times where he seems more like a Grey than a Paul. Moody, particular, wildly talented; when he started college he moved up north on a music scholarship, to the birthplace of grunge, Jimi Hendrix, and the Seattle jazz scene.
I’m glad I left the Bay Area, he tells me. I like it better here.
But are you ever coming back? I want to ask. Are you staying in Washington forever?

By the time my parents were ready to move to Laos, I had lived in four different places. Since I was too little to remember any of those moves, however, I was taken by surprise when my mother began going through my drawers and packing lesser-used items into boxes labeled MIA CLOTHING. She found all kinds of things in the back of the closet: broken toys, stuffed animals, a pair of purple tights with holes in the heels that no longer fit me. I learned that along with getting rid of old belongings and putting boxes in storage, unearthing old memories was all a part of the process.

Things we have forgotten: The precise location of the garden gnome that disappeared from our backyard while we were away. Exactly how long we lived in Southeast Asia. When we left America. The number of feet in a mile. Old phone numbers. Why we used to fly United. How many times we have flown across the Pacific, breathing dry, recycled air and counting the hours until arrival.

* * *

When we first arrived in Laos, Paul was a baldheaded little boy with a high-pitched, toothless giggle, and I was a stringy-haired four-year-old who put him in a headlock every time we posed for a picture. I felt it was my duty as an older sister to make sure he was behaving properly in front of the camera. Look at the camera, Paulie.
Our parents were young, naïve, and painfully out of place among the thatched roofs and dirt roads of Sapangmoh Village, but they thrust themselves valiantly into the foreignness of Lao village life. Our mother got lost whenever she tried to drive home and my father asked for diarrhea one time at a restaurant, but they couldn’t be blamed for either of those things. In my father’s defense: though Lao is grammatically uncomplicated, it has five different tones which are easily confused and represent a wide array of meanings. In my mother’s defense: there were no paved roads, traffic lights, or street signs in the early days.
Our primary caregiver during those first few years was a young woman named Anita. My father’s boss had hired her to take care of our household because having a maid, we learned, was simply a fact of life in former French Indochina. Anita was a nervous, frail little thing when we first met her, and she burst into tears when my mother asked what her name was. I don’t know how we communicated because I spoke no Lao, she spoke no English, and Paul couldn’t talk, but somehow we got along.
As I remember it, my brother and I had a wonderful first year in Laos. We thought it was all a part of some fantastic jungle adventure dreamed up by our parents. If I dig deep enough, however, there are other memories: Paul running through the backyard with heat rash and dirty diapers, screaming in terror at the termite mounds, five-inch wolf spiders, and bright red centipedes bristling with tiny legs. His monsters didn’t hide under the bed. They lurked in the backyard.

It is early January and we are halfway through our first year in Laos. At the dinner table, my mother picks up a slice of lumpy carrot-covered dough and lifts it slowly to her mouth. Anita has been in the kitchen all afternoon and emerged with something halfway between a pizza and a Lao papaya salad: a birthday surprise for Madame. My mother takes a bite and starts bawling, elbows planted on the table, head in her hands, hair stringy and matted from the humidity. She is thirty-four today, and the strangeness of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic is too much to bear. Anita rushes into the dining room, terrified she hasn’t cooked Madame’s falang dinner correctly, and my father looks around the room helplessly.
“Go get your mom a tissue,” he says, as my brother opens his mouth and starts wailing from his highchair.
I freeze. “A tissue?” I say, barely able to hear myself over the confusion. “From the bathroom?”
“Yes, from the bathroom. And Paul, please. Do you want me to send you to the corner?”
I swallow and force myself out my chair. Standing in front of the bathroom door, I shut my eyes, rush in, and grab blindly for the toilet paper on the edge of the bathtub. I am trying hard not to think about the cockroaches behind the toilet, even though they aren’t the only things in the bathroom that scare me. The sink came crashing down one time while my father was brushing his teeth, and I heard the porcelain shatter from the other end of the house.
I run back to the dining room trailing a toilet paper tail behind me.
“Mommy,” I cry. “Mommy, tissue!”
For a moment I hardly recognize her. Her face is twisted into an ugly expression I have never seen before, and she reaches out and pulls the toilet paper from my hand. Crumples it into a loose wad of rough gray fiber.
“This is not tissue,” she hisses, as Paul, barely two years old, sobs quietly in the corner. “This isn’t even toilet paper.”

Though I wish I could conjure up a sugary sweet childhood for my little brother, he didn’t get the picket fences and mother-daughter play dates I did, and I would be lying if I told him otherwise. Our parents were unable to lavish the same amount of love and affection on him as they had on me when I was a toddler. He grew up under such troubled family circumstances: abrupt international dislocation, parents struggling with cultural alienation, a mother shell-shocked by the horrors of third world poverty.
It’s not fair, I imagine him saying shrilly, you always get the good stuff.
I’m sorry, Paul, I want to say. I don’t think there’s anything I can do.

When we moved back to the United States, Paul began roaming the red and white-checkered hallways of his new school with a grim mug on his face, beanie pulled low on his forehead. High school sucks, he’d tell me over the phone in the gravelly voice he’d developed since moving to the East Bay. It sucks. I hate everyone. When things got particularly bad I would curl up in bed, phone pressed close against my sweaty ear, and clutch the bedcovers around my neck. I no longer remember the details, just the feeling of his words breaking against my eardrums and washing my face in clear tears that taste of salt and loneliness.

Things that never should have happened: International displacement. Hepatitis B. Paul dashing down the fourth floor hallway of Bumrungrad Hospital, IV stretched taut from his thin wrist, the metal stand rattling after him. Waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of my father barking GET OUT at the thief crawling into the window of my parents’ bedroom. Losing a string of best friends in quick rapid-fire succession.

* * *

Paul and I are older now, and more capable of holding conversations about our shared childhood in Laos, though he usually describes it as either a blank spot in his mind or a series of memories that are too painful to revisit. Every now and then, however, he lets something slip about Scotty’s mysterious disappearance, or Hamish’s shooter jets, or Blane’s American Embassy parents. I am flooded by bittersweet emotion when this happens—sobered by the gravity of his stories, grateful he has managed to hold onto something of our history. I have discovered that his natural tendency is to press blindly toward the future, whereas I cling fiercely to relics of the past. My need to recollect fragments of family history is an unrelenting obsession. My brother’s desire to remember is a faint shadow that disappears without a trace whenever a new dawn arrives.
Sometimes I wonder if we are simply operating out of a need to distinguish ourselves from each other. Is that why I don’t listen to jazz, play video games, or drive my parents’ car when I’m home? Is it because my brother does all those things? Is it because he does them well? Is it because we are jealously vying for a competitive edge that if one of us excels at something, the other refuses to show the slightest interest in it? I hate reading. Well, I hate listening to music. I hate lifting weights. Well, I hate swimming. Are we trying to maintain equilibrium in the constantly shifting dynamics of our family? Or are we simply different?
A jazz studies and percussion major, my brother deals exclusively in sound and rhythm. An English major, I spend my days crafting prose and mining the encoded meanings of words. Driven by manic overachievement, I injured my hands in college from overuse. Too many papers, too many grant proposals, too many art projects, and now, three years of carpal tunnel syndrome. So far he has spent most of his undergrad career listening to indie music and telling friends to just chill over coffee. I can’t sleep in a room if the furniture isn’t arranged in a way that feels just right. He lives in a state of constantly evolving chaos. I don’t know how we came to embody these oppositions, but it’s almost as if someone whipped out a pen before we were fully formed and decreed that if I was ever thesis, he would be antithesis.
When we were little kids in Laos, our mother used to throw us in the shower together to save time and water, hosing us down in one giant spray. My brother was always the one who squealed for hot water, I was the one who demanded cold. Later, when we were old enough to tend to our own hygiene, he became the King of Dirty and I, the Queen of Clean. It wasn’t until high school that I began wearing the same jeans multiple times a week and taking showers every other night rather than every day. That was around the time Paul began exfoliating his face and obsessively needing things like mouthwash, special skin toner, and pimple removal gel.

Things we have lost: Nerf gun darts, trapped on our grandmother’s roof. Chess pieces. Picture books from our childhood, donated to the library because we didn’t have enough boxes. Photo albums, eaten by Lao termites. Baseballs. Noon and Bubba, our two dogs. Micro Machines. Best friends like Scotty and Hamish. Grandpa Roy.

* * *

My extended family got together recently to pay our respects to the dead. Visiting cemeteries is something my brother and I never did as children because we never had any relatives buried in the same hemisphere. We grew up believing that the only certainty lay in uncertainty and that people didn’t die, they just moved away. We always approached people and places with the guardedness of the knowledge that this too shall pass. In our case, the end we feared was not death, but the end of a parent’s two-year term overseas.
Since relocating back to the United States, however, we have come to learn about things like roots and stability. With the exception of my college-bound cousins, none of our extended family members have moved in the past decade. Perhaps even the past two decades. While our life has been typified by constant change, all our relatives have known are quiet lives of dogged permanence. In recent years I have slowly become absorbed into the patterns of their life. I go to church two blocks away from the elementary school my grandfather attended in the early 1900s. I celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, and oshogatsu, Japanese New Year, with complicated networks of extended family members. I accompany my grandparents to the cemetery every six months to leave flowers at our ancestors’ headstones.

The wind from the San Francisco Bay is rolling in quickly and my grandmother is having trouble making it up the hill to Grandpa Roy’s gravesite. “Don’t forget the deer spray,” she shrills from behind her walker. The wind picks her voice up, scatters it like white ash, bears faint traces of it up to the summit. “The deer will eat those roses right up if you don’t spray them good.”
My grandmother feels strongly about many things, and deer spray is one of them. Because our family comes from three generations of Japanese American rose-growers, flowers are seen as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. Quit dawdling. Get those roses in boxes and ship them out. Hustle hustle, hurry up now. Those roses are your college education. I follow her up the hill to my grandfather’s grave, pulling my windbreaker close against my body and pressing into the wind. My grandmother’s walker jerks across the patchy grass in starts and stops, a slow, painful journey that takes several minutes to complete.
“Do you have the deer spray?” she asks, after catching her breath.
“Oh no,” my Auntie Marge says, turning to her sister. “I think we forgot the deer spray.”
“Oh, Marge,” Eiko says, pulling a few strands of hair from her mouth. “How could you?”
“Wait here,” Auntie Marge says, and presses her armful of chrysanthemums and lilies into my icy hands. I watch her run down the hill to check her car. Her husband follows quickly behind her.
“Don’t forget the deer spray!” my grandmother calls after her.
Auntie Eiko reassures her that Marge will find the deer spray. We gather around the graves of our grandfather, great-uncle and aunt, stripping long-stemmed flowers of excess leaves and snapping the bottoms off. I stand to the side and thread ferns through my fingers, just for the thrill of it.
“How’s Paul, by the way?” my aunt asks, picking the wilted petals off a peach colored rose.
“Paul?” I say. I twirl the feathery tip of the fern against my palm. I spoke with him on the phone two days ago. He was sick with a low-grade fever and had been tossing and turning on the eighth storey of his giant concrete dorm for a week.
“Paul’s fine,” my mother says. “He’s doing great. He loves Seattle. He misses everyone, though. He wishes he could be here.”
“Is he coming back for Spring Break?” my aunt asks.
“No.”
“No?”
“But I’m going up there to visit him for my break,” I say, just as my other aunt returns, deer repellent in hand. I’m trying to keep this family together for as long as possible, I add silently. We’ve gone through too much to pull apart across the miles.
“Got it, got it, got it!” Auntie Marge says breathlessly.
“Okay good,” my grandma says, from behind Grandpa’s cemetery plot. “Spray it good and hard. And don’t get it in our faces.”

Things we miss: Each other. Everyone living under the same roof. Driving around town on Daddy’s motorcycle, the two of us sandwiched between our parents on the slippery vinyl seat. Family trips to the zoo. Feeding tiny clusters of banana to the elephants. Sticky rice, eaten at breakfast with peanut butter and jam. The thrill of landing in San Francisco after twenty hours of flying. Disappeared friends.

Later that afternoon, our relatives gather around a table at our favorite Italian restaurant. My artist uncle, the retired high school teacher, asks me if I still miss Laos.
“It was almost home for you, wasn’t it?”
I swallow the mussel I had been chewing the past few minutes, grimacing a little at the dirty dishwater taste it leaves in my mouth.
“It was home; back then, at least. I’ve started feeling so at home in the States, though. I just get used to places quickly, I guess.”
“I just remember this one time when you guys were back for the summer, I heard your little brother say he wanted to go home and I thought wow, he still remembers that house on—on—”
“Pomona Avenue.”
“Yeah, that house on Pomona Avenue. The one with the shutters. He was just a little guy when you guys lived there.”
“He wasn’t even two.”
“And then I realized,” my uncle feigns a look of amazement, “I realized he meant he wanted to go to Laos. And I thought, now isn’t that something.”
I shrug and stab at my linguine.
“Isn’t that something? He was talking about Laos, and I thought he meant the house on Pomona. I thought that was really something. Seemed like he didn’t think America was home.”
“That’s about right,” I say. America never was home; not for Paul, not for me, not for my parents either, after fifteen years of living overseas. I turn to the vegan cousin sitting on my right. Too much talk about my family’s fractured history makes me uncomfortable.
“What did you look like when you were born?” I ask. My eldest cousin has just had her first child, and our grandfather’s memorial luncheon has been dominated by conversations about colicky babies and breast pumps.
“Well,” she said, “my mom said I was stringy. Long and stringy, with a big head.”
“At least you weren’t red and wrinkly,” I chuckle, thinking of all the times in Laos I scoured the molding pages of our old family photo albums for a sense of home. “That’s how Paul came out. We were looking at his baby pictures last summer, and I told him he looked like he’d been beamed down from outer space.”
My cousin laughs and forks a naked leaf of lettuce into her mouth.

When Paul left for college, I didn’t expect to feel sad, mostly because my family is so well versed in the art of leave-taking. Leaving is normal. Leaving home is something we have practiced over and over with dogged persistence. Leaving extended family is another; we have had a lifetime of practice. Over the years we have become so good at saying goodbye that it has become mere formality. We experience the faint clench of fingers around our heart as a vague unnamed emotion; little more than a twinge. It does not register as sadness, merely a sign that there is something new ahead.
Bidding farewell to Paul, however, was an iron fist that curled around the heart and refused to let go for days. We were not used to that feeling. During the long drive from Seattle to San Francisco, my mother cried in the front seat. My father drove in stony silence. I sprawled out in the backseat and stared out the window; as we made our way through the city and crossed the Bay Bridge I counted the taut iron cables that held the bridge suspended in open air, wondering when the goodbyes were going to end.

Things we wonder: Is this worth saving? Do you think we’ll need that? Where did this old thing come from? Who forgot to label this box? How long until we move again? Why are we doing this again? Are we ever coming back?

* * *

When Paul came home last year, our parents decided it was a good time to move. They had been planning to move back to the Pomona House for several months, but the tenants had taken longer to pack than expected and my mother wanted to repaint the walls before settling in.
A few days before Paul flew back to Seattle, the four of us filed into the house with mops and brooms. We immediately set to work cleaning up after the last tenants, a mysterious biracial couple that dropped the rent off on our doorstep without knocking, and then disappeared without a trace. The only things they left behind were a cracked ceramic vase, a mug with the handle broken off, and three mysterious rolls of Chinese brush paintings hidden on top of the china cabinet.

“Give me a hand in here,” my dad calls from the master bedroom, his voice muffled by the noise of the vacuum cleaner.
My mother leaves us in the living room and disappears into the bedroom. We hear her voice echoing down the hallway, “Are we keeping this dingy blue carpet?”
“Hey, give me a piggy back ride,” I say, reaching for Paul’s shoulders. “Come on, genius. It’ll be fun.”
“Fun for you, maybe. Do you know how much you weigh?”
“Shut up, genius.” I swat at his face and launch myself onto his back as he staggers around the room, crashing into walls and bookshelves.
“Yeehaw. Hold on tight, little sister!”
My laughter fills the house as we careen around the room. Paul pauses for a moment to catch his breath and we hear our father moving into the hallway with the vacuum cleaner, sucking up dust and leaving swaths of naked floor in his wake.
“The vacuum is coming, the vacuum is coming,” I shriek, and Paul takes off at full speed, jostling me roughly. “Stop—running—so—fast!” I gasp through desperate peals of laughter. “I’m going—to—fall!”
He starts turning tight circles in the center of the room, spinning faster and faster until my legs are splayed out like propellers and the world becomes a blur.
“Paul!” I scream, and suddenly, without warning, he stops.

Later, we gather in the empty living room and survey the bare shelves, the swept floor, the single lamp standing in the corner. The lines of the house are clean and spare, and we stand measuring the dimensions of our home, lost in silent worlds of private thought. Much has happened since we last lived here. In my mind I test the weight of this home, the first house we lived in as a whole family, against the memory of all the others that followed.
Our parents move toward the door and step outside. Paul follows soon after, mop and broom in hand. I am the last to leave, and as I turn to take a final look at the dark interior of the house, my father says behind me, “We have a lot of work to do here.”
I turn around with the words, “How long do you think—” on my lips, but the breath is caught in my throat before I can finish. I fall silent at the sight of my family standing luminous against the purple sky. Their faces are open, waiting.

Things we have saved: Ba Ba, Paul’s once colorful baby blanket that is now mostly gray flannel. The Chronicles of Narnia. Monopoly. The fear of moving. The uniforms we wore in middle school. My sixth grade teacher’s address. Photos from our parents’ wedding. Belief in God. The house on Pomona Avenue. Memories of us running barefoot through the dusty streets of Sapangmoh Village, dodging stray dogs and marveling at the strangeness of it all.

Download “Things We Have Saved” as a PDF.

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Filed under Creative Non-Fiction, Vol 1 Issue 3

Touring the Erotic Museum

By Steven Tagle

If You Really Want To

Speeding down Hollywood Boulevard, I don’t even notice the museum, but my brother sticks his head out the window of my silver Volvo, maybe restless, maybe trying to sniff it out.  Just as we’re about to drive by, Jim says, “You wanna go in?”

“What?”

“The Erotic Museum,” he says.  “Wanna go in?”

I try to catch a glimpse of it without crashing.  “Right now?”

“It might be interesting.”

“Right now.  You wanna go?”

“I’m just saying: might be interesting.”

I’m twenty now, and Jim’s eighteen, but he insists we double back to get his driver’s license, just in case.  Tonight he hasn’t shaved and looks as old as me, dark stubble masking any hint of a blush.  Well if you really want to, I think, catching his eye.  He shoots me a look I know well, light but defensive.  Of course, by now, it’s already been decided.  We both want to, and this is just formality, us spinning the story, heaving the blame around like a sack of steaming potatoes.  My brother’s sex drive is an elusive creature, like Sasquatch or the Loch Ness.  He’s playing a risky game, finally admitting to his teenage angst, his red-blooded curiosity about sex.  We never talk about it, just those few times in the car, when after one juicy question, he actually says, This is making me uncomfortable.

The Frequency of “It”

“This is making me uncomfortable,” Jim said.  He was a freshman then, and as we drove away from his dirty high school friends, I kept an eye on him, hoping he’d share some of their dirt with me.

“You brought it up, dude.”

“Well, Eric said it happened in his sleep.  Woke up, and it was everywhere.”

His friends were having a jerk off contest, the ultimate test of restraint, gunning to see who could hold out the longest.  For pampered high schoolers, this was a hip new trend, prelude to losing your virginity at prom.  It was an assent to climax, shedding small things first, your freshman sense of taboo, your shame.  They wouldn’t let him play.

“They said, ‘You don’t do it!  That’s cheating!’  How is that cheating?”

“Why did they say you don’t do it?” I asked.

“Because I don’t.”  Then, reddening to meet my skepticism: “I don’t.”

Then it was cheating.  When I was in high school, discovering that your buddies did “it” too was a strange and exciting relief.  While it was virtually impossible not to do “it,” going out on a limb and sharing secrets that shocking manufactured its own intimacy.   Refusal to do so was not restraint, but a lie so obvious it bordered on betrayal, violating friendship and its expectation.  Then again, the possibility that he really didn’t do “it” was even more unnerving, signaling a superhuman strength that squashed my will to putty in comparison.  Our parents raised us to accomplish, leaving little room for what they termed “unproductive sexy-sex.”  They sheltered us by accident, minimizing sex to the level of distraction.  I still saw Jim as asexual as a cartoon, more naïve than most, and more pure.  When we were kids, he mooned over April O’Neil, the cute, yellow-suited reporter from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  I always thought they’d make a good match.

A few days later, he brought “it” up again, after all his dirty friends had dropped out, ending their contest in a series of anticlimactic spurts.  We were lying in our bunk beds with the lights out, and this time I got the nerve to follow up, asking bluntly, “So, you really never do it?”

“Well,” he said.

“Never ever?”

“Most of my friends have to do it every day or a few times a week.  I…for me—about once a month, maybe?”

About once a month.  Not every day or a few times a week, but an occurrence on the order of months.  Then Jim said he felt uncomfortable talking about it, and I wondered how red the question had made him.  He was an awfully good sport, giving his secret away without asking for anything in return.  His admission kept me up late.  Not every day.  Not a few times a week.  About once a month.  As if somehow, like menstruation, it just happened.

Putting Out

A man in a worn leather jacket stands outside the museum handing out coupons.  He looks homeless, a formidable obstacle.  I consider turning back.  This homeless man will know we were here.

“Discount on admission,” he says. “Two bucks off.”
Jim reaches for a coupon.
”Discount’s automatic inside,” the man whispers, pulling his hand up and away.

The lobby of the Erotic Museum seems clean enough, a sparse, intellectual art deco.  Here they sell backscratchers and florescent dildos, t-shirts that say, “Just Did It,” and “Tough Love.”  It lacks a sex shop’s grit, but just beyond that black curtain is who knows what.

The lady at the counter looks bored, an art student, used to this scene.

“Two?” she asks.

Jim nudges me.  “Do you have cash?” he asks.

“Are you going to put out?”  It’s the first thing to come to mind, gliding out of my mouth with a flourish of male sarcasm.  Though it easily ranks as one of the more unseemly things I’ve ever said to him, I figure, what the hell—we’re in the Erotic Museum.  The lady at the counter coughs, and Jim toes a smudge on the floor.

“I’ll pick up dessert with my card,” he says quietly.

“Two,” I nod, sliding a twenty across the display case.

“Your first time?” the lady asks, counting out change.  I notice the entwined symbols of Venus on her wrist, peeking out from a severe black cuff.

“Of course not,” I say.

“Just play safe.”

She hands me two tickets and change.  I offer Jim one, but he shrugs it off, so I’m stuck with the dirty evidence.  Silence becomes our understanding.  I agree to finance this trip knowing it’s something he’ll never tell his girlfriend, never tell our parents, the kind of lesson older brothers are supposed to teach.

Last Kisses

The last time I kissed a girl, I was in the first grade.  Her name was Lisa, and she was a year younger than me.  She lived right across the street, and after school we often invited each other over to ride bikes and play house.  Lisa had a small room, and her bed took up most of the space, positioned diagonal to a corner.  One afternoon, we lay in the crawlspace beneath the bed, staring up at the triangle of ceiling where the headboard met the walls.  This was our house.

“So I’m your husband,” I said.  “I’m coming home from work.”

“What should I do?” she asked.

“I dunno.  You’ve been cleaning all day.  Just say, ‘Welcome home, honey.’  Greet me at the door.”

“Honey?” she asked.  “My mom and dad say ‘sweetheart.’”

“I think ‘honey’ is better,” I said, wriggling around to face her.  “And you should probably kiss me.”  Kissing struck me as a necessary evil, the hard-won detail that would make our performance memorable for having been endured.  Real artists suffered.  And after all, what husband and wife didn’t kiss?

“On the cheek?”

“On the lips,” I said, grimacing.

We took a moment to get into the scene.

“Hi honey, I said.  I’m home from work.”

“Welcome home, sweetheart,” she said.

The kiss, as I remember, was soft and fleeting.  Her lips, moist with kindergarten spittle, felt dramatically different from what I had expected.  There wasn’t a grand soundtrack or spinning lights.  I didn’t feel like a hero.  Instead, there was just moist rubber, a part of the body that felt different from skin.  Our lips touched briefly, and then we were just two kids again, two kids under the bed, playing house.  She never said whether or not she liked it, and in any case, we didn’t do it again.  I was too young to know what should follow a kiss, but I expected something comparable to love, and felt vaguely let down when she pulled herself up and out of our triangular house.  As I walked home, I told myself it was just a kiss, wondering if I should have saved it.  Regrettably, the suffering of two young artists made for great neighborhood gossip, and by that evening, my parents, Lisa’s, and all the kids on our block thought that I liked her.

Big Grandma Betty

Converted from an old souvenir t-shirt shop, the Erotic Museum covers two floors, but is still smaller than I expected.  It’s a museum that takes itself seriously, with stark white walls and hardwood floors that echo when we tread on them.  I suppose an establishment like this needs to take itself seriously so that others will, too.  The world is overrun by righteous parents and snickering teenage boys.  Founded in January 2004 by four Russian entrepreneurs, the museum is the only one of its kind on the West Coast.  I like the uniqueness of that fact; it’s the only sexual sanctuary for thousands of miles.

Right inside the curtained entrance is “The Human Body Project,” an array of photographs cataloguing every imaginable variation of penis and breast.  The exhibit features row after row of naked men and women, the enduring image of mankind, posing as neutrally as action figures on a shelf.  I don’t see any supermodels.  The people on the wall have bodies like marshmallows and flat tires, with skin colors as diverse as a multicultural marker set.  They are fat and hairy in all the wrong places.  What about this is erotic? I wonder.  These people look just like me.  Big Grandma Betty once told my brother and me that she makes a point of weighing herself in the nude each night before she showers.  Somebody’s grandmother is here, I think.  From the corner of my eye, I watch Jim stare at the frumpy, tan-lined nudes, trying to decode the meaning of their terrible ordinariness.  Then he turns to me.

“Do you know what this is?” he asks.

I glance at the placard he’s puzzling over:  The Erotic Museum is conducting an ongoing research project intent on recording the full breadth of natural and altered human physiology.

Is he joking?  What does his question even mean?  He stares at me expectantly, and I get the sick feeling that it’s not the exhibit he’s puzzling over, but the whole idea of the Erotic Museum, the public display of private desire.  I’m afraid he’ll ask me what this museum’s all about, keep staring me down until I explain why we’ve come to see grandmothers naked.  I scan the lines of misshapen nudes, trying to intuit an answer from their sad, concave chests.  None of this is what I thought it would be.

“It’s like reality,” I say finally.  “People aren’t really like what they’re like on TV.”

Merelin Monroe Naked, Part I

Last year, when Jim came up to visit me at school, I thought I caught him watching porn on my computer.  I checked the History Trail on a hunch, and while he showered, found the wayward scent of his secret, primal urges.  Jim was a horrible speller, so horrible that he could almost be proud of his unorthodox creativity; Yahoo returned records like “Merelin Monroe naked” and “collage porn stars.”  “Merelin Monroe naked” was especially telling, since we had just returned from San Francisco, and he bought a street vendor’s sketch of the actress for his girlfriend, Sarah.  The sketch was flattering and generic, but Yahoo infused it with seedier motives.  He found Marilyn attractive?  And not just celebrity-attractive, but attractive enough to get off on?  Something sexual drew him to that pencil sketch, pheromones from the canvas persuading him to lay down twenty bucks.

As for “collage porn stars,” Yahoo returned 468,000 sites, and Jim clicked on the second and third.  Luckily for him, people in porn spell just as badly, I thought.  Collage Girls Exposed, free pics!, screamed teenagetits.com.  Sexy Southern Collage Students Having a Hard Foursome Fuck Fest!!!, said southernwhores.com.  These were porno sites I hadn’t been to before, some of them surprisingly good.  Here, thumbnails linked to full-sized pictures, and the girls actually looked my age.  It was hard to imagine that less than ten minutes ago, Jim was looking at the same pictures.  The History Trail listed every link he clicked on, so I became the voyeur of his most private thoughts.  These were the girls he found attractive enough to fleetingly pursue, the ones who successfully seduced him into clicking their thumbnails.  Most of the girls—Vera, Alex, Jules—were brunettes with curly hair.  They intrigued me:  Vera with the silver-dollar nipples, Jules with the diamond-haired crotch and spread legs, triggered something in him that I could not fathom.  They were his type, and maybe mine.  We never discussed type.

Our Best Defense

On the second floor, Jim holds a cock-shaped magnifying glass up to slides from the “San Fernando Says” exhibit, the Valley’s representative wall of porn.  There’s so much skin on these backlit slides that the whole wall radiates an orange glow.  Here’s a woman rubbing a cat between her breasts as she masturbates.  Here’s a naked man painting a woman’s toenails as she gives him head.  Why doesn’t this shock me anymore? I wonder.  Jim drops the magnifying cock, his face unreadable.  It’s not distaste exactly, but maybe embarrassment for me, that I could really be the type of brother who’d bring him here just to win his approval.   We waver at a portal to the exciting and the absurd, and I want to say, Do you think about this stuff too?  Yet in the depraved Valley of barebacked porn stars, I feel a growing need to protect him.  This is not the innocuous Human Body Project.  This is sleazy hardcore stuff that large, hirsute men mass produce and sell at neon XXX joints to Jim’s dirty friends.

“Are these just more pictures of naked people?” he asks.

“Yeah, really,” I scoff.

We peruse erotic art, one room devoted to vibrant portraits of naked women eating.  On one canvas, a woman with olive skin and dark nipples sits squeezing a watermelon between her legs.  One thin sliver of the fruit has been removed, giving us an illicit peek at its ripe interior.  She nibbles on the extracted slice with a smile.  We look at her, then look at each other—Why is sex so random?  I feign shock to put him at ease, trying hard to find that part of myself that sex once appalled.  Together, we stare at the displays with an objectivity borne of our real and imagined terror, our own particular shame.  Anyone else would laugh.

I stop to examine the original Playboy spreads of Marilyn Monroe in her Red Velvet series, Mona Lisa to the Erotic Museum.  Beside the spreads play clips from an infamous 1948 porno flick, featuring a woman who may or may not be her.  I watch the surprisingly flexible maybe-Marilyn in action and ruminate on the quality of black and white porn.  When Jim nudges me on, I can’t help myself.

“Look!” I say, grabbing him by the collar and mimicking her most seductive pose, “it’s Merelin!”

He rolls his eyes, a nod to either his guilt or my stupidity.  Maybe Jim’s embarrassed to find himself here, but I’m more disappointed.  Some things just don’t belong in museums.  In these sparse galleries, sex is sanitized, abstracted into a series of neat, spotlit artifacts.  We’re given rumpled sheets in shadow boxes, sex under a microscope, sex without intimacy.  Like the framed Peanuts strips in San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum, these remote pictures frustrate me.  Something messy and essential has been lost.

“This is like that cartoon museum,” I say.
”You’re enjoying this?” he asks.

Sucker Punch

The thought formed fleetingly in my mind, like all of my outrageous and repressed desires:  If he agrees that his girlfriend’s car is better than mine, I’m going to punch him.

“I don’t know,” Jim said, glancing from me to Sarah.  “The Stevemobile is pretty cool.”  He lay a hand on my silver Volvo, the car he named, an old friend.  It was our car, a symbol worth defending.  I carted him around in it for four years, and when he was learning to drive, it was the car I trained him in, just us and an abandoned parking lot.  He knew to leave our emblems be, to remain impartial.  Weeks earlier, Sarah called the Stevemobile a taxicab for her and Jim.  April O’Neil would never have stooped that low.

The thought of Jim having a girlfriend was itself strange and awkward, a nagging reality I tried my best to ignore.  Compared to his alleged forays into porn, this new relationship seemed impractical and concrete, an unnecessary burden to bear.  While porn was a pleasant departure into something like sex, this had an unwelcome gravity: dating someone real and kissing her, too.  He never consulted me before asking her out, perhaps figuring that in liking and love, he didn’t want protection.

That particular night, Jim, Sarah, and I planned to watch a movie together, but as the previews began, she whispered something to him, and they slipped away.  Half an hour later, unwilling to watch the whole movie alone, I went outside to find him.  In the dark, I couldn’t miss them in her green Mustang, making out with the lights on.  He and Sarah kissed long and hard, eyes closed, faces pressed together in need.  I wavered at the corner of the house, knowing I shouldn’t interrupt, but unwilling to leave them be.  Why are they doing this now? I thought.  I blamed Jim for his lack of control, trying to convince myself that he hadn’t outgrown Blockbuster movies with his brother.  His making out with a girl seemed almost obscene to me, disloyal, grown-up, and dangerous.

When the movie was over, I came back outside to join Jim and Sarah on the driveway.

“I know!” Jim announced.  “We’ll have a thumb wrestling match to decide.”  And for some reason—maybe to impress him—I submitted to this bizarre trial.  After Sarah and I clasped hands, I deftly swung my thumb around and pinned her fair and square, perhaps a little too hard.

“I don’t think you can wrap your thumb around like that,” Sarah said, rubbing her hand.  “That’s cheating.”

“I think she’s right,” Jim said.

And that was it.  I let my fist fly right into his soft belly.  He stumbled backwards, doubling over and grabbing his stomach.

“You dick!” he said.

“I don’t like this,” Sarah said.  I could tell she had never heard him curse, and it upset her.  I stood there grinning, happy to assert myself, amazed at what I could coax out of him with one lame punch.  He had a darker undercurrent that I could tap, sending expletives welling to the surface with the wind I knocked out of him.  It felt good, an action required to keep my younger brother in line.  I offered him a hand, and with one swift pull, he yanked me off my feet.  Not knowing what to do, Sarah retreated to the front seat of her Mustang.  We wrestled playfully on the street, asphalt digging into our backs, and I emerged a minute later with a scratched watch and elbow, all forgiven.  Jim and I hugged, and I apologized again for hitting him, wondering if this fight would foreshadow another.

Interaction

In the interactive section of the museum is the ToyBox, an aquarium of slick sex toys, moisture from the lube condensing on glass.  Two pairs of latex gloves allow access, and I notice a tear in the pale vagina, gaping grin of someone’s excitement.

“You wanna do this?” Jim asks.

We stand on either end of the ToyBox, inserting both arms up to our elbows.  The inside of my gloves feel moist and cool.  I begin by exploring alone, trying to insert a fleshy penis into the torn vagina.  It’s surprisingly hard to get the penis to penetrate.  The dildo’s not as firm as I’d like, and its knobby head keeps slipping away from the gummy orifice.  A small squeak announces each failed connection, an irritating reminder of my inexperience.
“Here, let me try,” Jim says.  He wields the doubleheaded dildo like a baseball bat, two hot pink penises conjoined at the balls.

I hold the sardonic vagina up to face him, and he uses his fingers to pry open the lips, jamming the Siamese dick at the hole with brute force.  It bounces off the impenetrable orifice, smacking me hard on the wrist.

“Hey, watch it, will you?”  I’m getting a sense of my brother’s style, and it’s not pretty.  The silicone hurts.

After the ToyBox debacle, we find an arcade game from Japan—strip Mahjong with giggling Japanese schoolgirls.  The game’s 8-bit graphics make it all the more absurd.  Who would get off on this?  Who would own this?  It reminds me of my old Nintendo set at home.  The machine won’t let us play, but we watch it cycle through previews and sample games.  A cartoon girl appears on screen.  She has the allure of a paper doll: one by one, her clothes magically disappear.  Another girl lies naked on her back, legs spread as she touches herself.  She gasps in ecstasy, body a pulse, and out pops a speech bubble with a single Japanese character.

“Fuck,” Jim says in awe.  The word slips out softly, without its usual meanness or stupidity.  It sounds so foreign that I don’t think to elbow or chide him.  Fuck.  This whole time, we should have been learning Japanese.

Merelin Monroe Naked, Part II

The evidence was overwhelming.  He was guilty, so guilty, but now that I had him pinned to the wall, I didn’t know what to do.  I want to be strong about this, I thought.  Not pedantic or parental, but I definitely want to send message.  Looking back, I could suddenly remember (or at least convincingly imagine) all the telltale signs that something fishy was afoot: the locked door, the closed laptop, the friendly, preoccupied look on his face.  We weren’t allowed to lock our doors at home because locking doors implied keeping secrets.  But he locked my dorm room door, and I had to bang on it three times wearing only a towel before he answered.  Furthermore, as he opened the door, I caught the strange look about him, a guilty “hand-down-my-pants” look.  I knew that look.

How far did he go with Vera and Alex behind my locked door, at my desk, with my laptop?  My computer was less than a year old then, and I secretly prided myself on my restraint:  in all that time, I managed to keep it completely porn-free.  But I allowed Jim the liberty of brothers and best friends.  I let him borrow books and board games knowing that they’d limp back to me with dog-ears, broken spines, and missing pieces.  It was just his way, a habit too deeply entrenched for me to even fault him for.  Feeling a stab of pity for the misguided kid, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt by erasing the History Trail before he returned from the shower.

Minutes later, Jim burst into the room wearing his same, worn pair of jeans, my Polo towel slung over his shoulder.  “All right, let’s eat!” he said.

Be strong, but don’t accuse, I thought.  Don’t come off as judgmental.

He slid a rumpled shirt on.  “What?”

“For some reason there seems to be porn on my computer,” I said, meaning, Why are you looking at porn on my computer?  I took a breath, rephrased myself.  “Why is there porn on my computer?”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “Why is there porn on your computer?”

“Because of you!  You did it!”

“I didn’t do it.”

I glared at him, flustered.  I didn’t expect him to deny it.  He did it.  I knew he did it.  But by refusing to own up to it, he stubbornly retained immunity, kept the case open, skipping just a step out of reach.  Now I could only say, “I think I caught him,” not, “I know.”  But really, it wasn’t about who caught whom or my inherent craftiness.  It was him saying that there were things we couldn’t share, a world beyond the scope of brotherhood.  He held me at arm’s length—neither of us could deny it.

“Are you angry?” he asked.  His tone implied a confession, and I let the moment linger.  Am I?  I didn’t mean for my curiosity to come off as anger.  I just want to know, I thought.  If you had caught me looking at Merelin Monroe naked, I’d be able to tell you.  Of course, that was unfair—I was much more careful than him.  But at least we could have joked about it.

Jim nudged me.  “Are you?”

“No.”

“I’ve only done it once…  Dad caught me.  He got really, really mad.  ‘What are you doing?!’ he said.  ‘What the hell are you doing?!?’”

He turned to me, wondering if he was really as naked in his emotion as he felt.

“Hey,” I said, “Your secret’s safe with me.”

Translation

When we’ve had our fill of the Erotic Museum, we walk over to the Disney soda fountain on Hollywood and Highland, shaking our heads free from the $6,000 sex robots with the interchangeable dicks, San Fernando’s glowing wall of porn.  In the book we kept of our adventures, I already planned to mark this one with a giant X.

“I can’t get my head out of the gutter,” I say.

“The Mahjong game was cool,” he says, blushing.  “I mean, you know.”

“You said ‘Fuck,’” I say, half regretting it.

“Well, I don’t know.  You say it too.”

“The museum was interesting.”

Then, of course, he pegs it on me, saying he can’t believe I dragged him in, jumping at the chance to see boobies and touch myself.  I let him project, imagining myself a slate for needs he keeps well hidden.  I’m still trying to decipher that part of him that suggests the sexual but is so quickly shamed.  Perhaps it’s because we continue to play young for each other, demanding innocence from our childhood days that we can’t help but violate.  We’re kids at heart, trying to retain simplicity as we remember it, enforcing each other’s purity with shaky, self-conscious eyes.  Though we both tend toward the insular, brotherhood has been the repository for our most candid shame.  It’s to each other that we have pledged lasting innocence, and with each other that we continue to whittle it away.  More and more, I’m learning that innocence is expendable, a virtue more imagined than real.  Jim and I reprimand each other for sexual lives we haven’t begun, but I suspect it isn’t the sex we’re after so much as the intimacy of secrets shared.  Sex is a colorful reminder of all that we long to know about one another, a vast, uncharted terrain that we can sense but not see.  Like our cartoon friend, we both speak Japanese, the unreadable language of our curiosity and desire.

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Filed under Creative Non-Fiction, Vol 1 Issue 1