The Mantis: Coda
We have another two week run of Madame Butterfly, this time way out in the suburbs. With this stupid relationship drama behind me, I'm finally able to relax and just enjoy being in the show. William must have said something to Vicky because she doesn't talk about him anymore. She's still super annoying in a bratty younger sister way, but I just avoid her. I avoid William as much as possible as well. I wish him luck with the whole therapy/personal discovery thing but I'm not right person to support him through that journey.
On William's advice, I talk to Sarah about her controlling behavior. Or rather, I sort of bring it up and sort of chicken out on really confronting her. I just say obliquely that all this negativity is bumming me out, and she makes a halfhearted attempt to dial it back. Mostly I deal with the problem by spending less time with her and more time with Lulu and the other women in the chorus.
Lulu has broken up with her lame J-Date boyfriend, so she has a lot more time to hang out with me. When we're not at the show, we're sleeping over at each other's houses, continuing our in-joke of pretending to be married. As I'm lying next to her one evening, we're joking around, calling each other wifey, when it starts to feel maybe more serious. She's beautiful, with long blond hair and a dazzling smile. It's so easy to be around her. I can't think of anyone else I get along with so well. I think back on Gretchen falling in love and marrying her best friend.
"Maybe we should just give up on dudes and marry each other for real," I suggest.
"I'm sorry," she says. "I know you're bi but I'm just not. I really need a dick."
I laugh. I guess the fact that I'm not at all bothered by her refusal is a sign that I also really just love her as a friend.
"I know, it's ok," I reply. "But it would be so much easier! Why does it have to be so hard to find the right person?"
Lulu sighs. "I know, right?"
After the two weeks in the suburbs the opera has an extra weekend performance even further south at a different theater. We've never performed at this theater before, but because Madame Butterfly is so popular they booked an additional place. This new theater is much smaller than what we are used to, so the blocking feels kind of squished but at this point we could do the show in our sleep.
The theater is so far away that Suzanna and I decide to share a hotel room for Saturday night so we won't have to rush to get back for the Sunday matinee. We go as cheap as possible and get a small room with only one bed, but by this time we've had so many sleepovers with the women's chorus that it doesn't feel awkward.
It's midnight by the time we settle into bed, but after a show it's always hard to unwind enough for sleep. Suzanna in her pink pajamas cuddles up to me from behind, spooning with her arms around me, her long curly blond hair spread all over the pillow. She starts chatting about her fiancé the tenor, then asks me about what happened with me and William.
I tell her all of it, except the part about him having herpes. I still respect the promise I made to keep that confidential. But everything about how he pursued me then dropped me. And somehow, once I get started, I can't stop. I continue on about how stupid it is that I'm so hung up on William when he isn't even my type. I tell her all about Warren and the Sub Rosa Society and all my adventures in Taipei, then I just continue on to The Mantis and K and my being a devotee, all of it. The whole time she's just laughing and agreeing and nodding along like this is the most normal thing in the world. By this point, I've told so many friends, it doesn't even feel like a big deal anymore. I have no fear that Suzanna will judge me or react negatively.
And she doesn't. At breakfast the next morning she gives me a little crooked smile over our free pastries in the hotel lobby and says, "I would never have guessed your sex life is so, ah, interesting."
I just laugh. "What, should I be walking around in bondage gear all the time?"
"I really had no idea! I couldn't believe all these stories just kept pouring out of you!"
"Oh, there's more where that came from," I assure her with an eye roll.
"I feel so vanilla by comparison. I wish I had a kink like you."
It's not the first time one of my vanilla friends has expressed envy over my devness. It's kind of strange to hear someone would want this thing that has hung so heavily over my whole life, made everything so complicated and led me to so many bad decisions. But on the other hand, I know exactly what turns me on. Last night Suzanna admitted that she never had an orgasm or masturbated until she was thirty years old, and it's only in the past few years that she's become more open about sex. So I guess I'm lucky in a way that I have this button I can always press. It's nice to think of being a devotee as an advantage, rather than just a guilty secret or shameful burden.
The Mantis and Titania attend our last performance of Madame Butterfly, as this theater is not far from the little town where they both live.
The only wheelchair seating in the theater is along the back wall, behind all the fixed chairs, but the theater is so tiny I can see him from the stage. As I make my entrance with the other ersatz geisha singing "Quanto cielo, quanto mar!" I can see the two of them waving to me as if we were meeting at the mall, not like I'm on stage in a semi-professional production. What are they thinking? I smirk my way through the rest of the entrance, trying not to break character too badly.
After the show, I race out to the lobby for the meet and greet. Mantis and Titania are waiting for me.
"That was great!" he says, giving me an awkward hug. I try to not smear my heavy geisha makeup on his black button down shirt. "Nice, um, costume," he adds insincerely.
"I know, isn't it hideous?" I laugh, showing off some of my rudimentary dance moves from the show, arcing my arms over my head and opening my fan. "Don't get too close!" After six weeks of continuous wear under hot stage lights, all our costumes reek of sweat. They can't be laundered, so the costumers periodically spray them with vodka, which in theory kills the germs that cause the odor but in actuality just makes us smell like homeless drunks.
"What is up with the so-called wheelchair seating in this theater?" Titania rants. "We paid full price but I had to sit in a folding chair up against the back wall! One of the ushers tried to convince me to take a seat down in front, but I was like fuck that, we came here as a couple, we're going to fucking sit together! We were practically out in the hallway."
"I'm sorry, I didn't know. We've never been in this theater before."
"Don't worry, it was fine," Mantis assures me. "We could see the whole stage really clearly."
I think it's sweet that he's offloaded his accessibility frustrations onto Titania so she can be outraged on his behalf and he doesn't have to.
As the rest of the cast filters out into the lobby, I introduce Mantis and Titania to all my friends. It feels so good that he wants to come, and that I don't have to hide him anymore. I came clean to Lulu and Marty about him, and unlike Sarah they responded with a shrug. Now they greet him warmly, like we've all been friends for years and it's no big deal.
Over the next few weeks, I continue to hang out with Mantis as a friend. He invites me down to Fish Head Point, the tiny town where he and Titania live. I drive south from Raser City, down down down the coast. I'm not expecting much, but it turns out the town is a quaint tourist attraction. They instruct me to meet them at a bar on main street even though it's the middle of the day, but when I get there I realize it's more of a restaurant, and quite a famous one. The food is surprisingly delicious.
As we chow down on hand rolled pasta and local greens, Titania tells me a long story about some guy hitting on her at a club even though the Mantis was right there. The dude didn't back down even after she told him they were together.
"Did that ever happen to you?" she asks.
I roll my eyes. "Yeah, all the time. Guys are either like 'oh how sad for you' or 'hey baby dump him for me.' Like I've just been hanging around waiting for a dude with a working dick to come along."
"I know, right?" Titania fumes.
"Then there was the guy who called me an angel."
They both snort loudly.
"At least I haven't gotten any weird reactions from my family," she says. "They all realize what a great guy he is. And it's really good for my kids to be around a disabled person and realize he's just a regular guy. The other day we were talking about that word 'invalid' and what a terrible term it is, 'in-valid,' like, not a full person." She tells me more about her kids, then circles back around to asking me about devotees.
"So how did you know you are one?" she asks.
I shrug. "I don't know, I just always knew I had this attraction, even when I was a little kid, before I even knew what sex is."
"Huh. I was starting to wonder if maybe I am one, but I never thought about wheelchairs or disability or anything before we met."
I shake my head. "You would know. It's like, constantly on my mind. I could tell you every actor who's ever played a blind character. It's a lot more than being open-minded enough to find a disabled guy attractive."
"To find a wretched, unworthy cripple attractive," The Mantis adds, hamming it up as usual.
After lunch, they show me around downtown Fish Head Point, which is all of four blocks. It's very picturesque in a historic small town kind of way. I don't have time to drive down to the beach, but I promise to make the trip out again.
A few weeks later, The Mantis invites me to his house on a Saturday afternoon. Titania is busy with her kids and won't be there, but it's ok, we've established enough of a friendship that it doesn't feel risky to see him alone anymore.
He sends me an email titled, "Directions to my meth lab." While Titania lives near the Fish Head Point town center, The Mantis lives about thirty minutes further down the coast, in a shack at the edge of a farm owned by his family. In return for some minor upkeep and supervising, they let him live there rent free. I guess that's why when he got divorced, his wife was the one to move out and he stayed put.
It's a good thing he sends me detailed directions because the house is at the end of a winding track beside a state park with at best patchy cell phone coverage. Google maps just shows a red pin in a big splotch of green. I count myself lucky when I only get lost and have to backtrack twice.
I realize I've come to the right place at last when I recognize his truck parked on the grass out front. His house does look like the kind of place where someone might hide a meth lab, a small one story house with all the rooms laid out in a straight horizontal line, like a sideways shotgun house. He gives me a quick tour. It's decorated very tastefully in an antique, Arts and Crafts kind of way. I would never have guessed. There's also nothing at all to suggest a wheelchair user lives here, except for a very rudimentary ramp in front, and the total lack of carpets or rugs on the hardwood floor.
Even in the bathroom, there's just an old fashioned clawfoot tub with high sides, and a regular toilet with a white painted wood seat.
"How do you get in and out of that tub?" I ask him.
He does his usual embarrassed half grin and shrug. "I dunno, I just do." I think back to all the times I got stuck in the bathtub with Rollerboy, how slippery and dangerous it felt. And there isn't even a shower here! Mantis is hopping in and out of that tub every day. I guess it really does help him to have such long arms.
"But doesn't that hard toilet seat hurt your butt?" I insist.
Again he just shrugs. "It's been ok so far." I roll my eyes. It's crazy to me how little he thinks about this stuff, but I guess it's better than getting too hung up on buying expensive adaptive equipment he doesn't really need.
After the tour, he says, "Hey, wanna see the beach?"
"Sure, sounds good."
I walk out onto the porch, which faces an orchard to the right and rolling fields to the left, planted in even rows. It's a beautiful clear sunny day, and all the colors look brighter than in the city. I can see the appeal of living out here, even though it's a pain in the ass to get anywhere.
"So this is your family's farm?"
"Yeah, but this is just one little corner. It goes way out that way," he says, flinging one long arm out in front of him. I can't even see any of the buildings from here.
"And you help out? What do you do?"
"Eh, mostly I just keep an eye on things. In the summer I set up the farm stand out on the main road, with tomatoes, cucumbers, whatever's ripe."
"Really? You run the farm stand? Do you sit out there all day?"
"No, most of the time I just leave a jar for people to drop money in, but sometimes if it's nice and I'm not busy I'll sit there."
I imagine myself driving down the highway and spotting a hot guy in a wheelchair just sitting out by the side of the road, selling vegetables. I would stop for sure. It would be like winning the lottery. I love the idea of guys in wheelchairs showing up in unexpected places, doing unexpected jobs, and this is one of the more unexpected.
As I'm daydreaming, he rolls down the ramp and pulls up next to a battered, well-worn four wheel ATV parked on the front lawn next to his truck.
"This is how I get around off-road," he explains as he scoots his butt up into the seat and pulls one leg over to the other side. "Wanna ride?"
"Sure!" I jump on back and we take off slowly, bumping down the dirt track to the main road. At the main road, he drives straight across and pulls up into a stand of bushes and scrubby low trees on the opposite side.
"Um, it's probably easier if you walk this part," he says. We're standing at the edge of a steep, sandy precipice that goes straight down about twenty feet. At the bottom is a rocky beach. There's kind of a rough track down, worn by repeated use, but it meanders around rocks and outcroppings of trees and brush. I feel like if I stay on the ATV I would fall right off.
"Yeah, I'll meet you at the bottom." I'm not sure how he will stay on but presumably he does this all the time. I watch him slowly bump down the nearly vertical track, then pick my way down even more slowly.
There in front of us at the base of the cliff is the Pacific Ocean. Not the bay like elsewhere around the city, but the real open ocean, gray and chilly even in the warm late summer sun. I stare out at the horizon, over the moderate waves to the flat sea, nothing at all for thousands of miles until you hit, I don't know, I guess Japan.
The beach is coarse sand littered with fist size and bigger rocks worn smooth by the water, scattered with dried seaweed. It's not the kind of beach that's ideal for swimming, but it's amazingly beautiful. I can see even more why he likes living here.
He points out that most of the rocks on the beach contain fossils. I look more closely and sure enough, embedded in the gray rocks are white flecks in the shapes of tiny ancient shells and barnacles. I pick up a couple and put them in my pocket.
When it's time to go, he motors the ATV back up the nearly vertical slope while I follow behind awkwardly on foot. I'm impressed at how easily he gets around the inaccessible terrain. I would never have thought of using a regular ATV rather than some kind of specially designed wheelchair, but when I mention this to him he just smiles and shrugs, humble as always.
As I drive back up the coast on my way home, through rolling hills of green farmland with the ocean on my left, I 'm struck again at how gorgeous it all is. We live in a place of extraordinary natural beauty, but I've spent so much of my time stuck in some of the ugliest parts of the city, I haven't seen it lately. I'm feeling awesome and happy, kind of amazed and also grateful at how well Mantis and I have transitioned to genuine friendship.
As nice as it is to have lots of friends, I still really want a steady relationship. There's this guy Yun-tae, a rockabilly motorcycle importer, who is a friend of a friend from the chorus. I've run into him several times at cast parties and when we all go out together. He's from Seoul and he gets super excited when I use my two words of Korean. He starts flirting like crazy, and I go along with it because he's cute and charming, with his impressive duck tail and black leather jacket, even though I have a feeling we don't really have anything in common except for my having once lived in his home city.
Our mutual friend vouches for him, so I give Yun-tae my number and he immediately starts texting and calling me all the time. We hang out a few more times with other friends, but finally I give in and let him come over to my apartment, on the pretext of watching some 1960s New Wave film together.
As soon as I turn down the lights and start up the DVD player, Yun-tae is all over me. We lay back on my tiny loveseat couch, him on top of me in his black leather pants and white t-shirt, elaborate tattoos rippling on his wiry arms.
But I just can't get into the mood. What is wrong with me? He's objectively good looking, like an Asian James Dean. I like him, and I like spending time with him. But somehow I'm just not feeling it. As he's rubbing up against me, I feel like he's going on a trip by himself while I just stay behind.
It's because he's able-bodied. I know it.
I let him paw at me on the couch in the dark for a while as the movie plays unwatched on the TV. At first I try to get excited but eventually I just give up.
He notices right away. "What's wrong?"
I sit up and straighten my clothes. "I'm sorry. I just... I'm not feeling it, you know?"
"What?" His face falls, and my heart breaks for him just a little.
"It's not you, it's me." I can't believe I'm actually saying the words, even though it's 100% true. Even as the words fall from my lips it sounds so fake.
"Ok. Whatever. I'll call you."
Yun-tae leaves, looking hurt and unhappy. I stop the DVD and sit on the couch for a long time, the blue screen of the TV the only light. This sucks. I hate leading him on like this. Would it be better or worse not to give him a chance at all?
I've got to stop saying yes to guys just because they like me. No more able-bodied guys, I decide. Never again. From now on I'm going for what I really want.