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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Traveling Salesman

by Loukia Borrell

            I’ve had sex with nine guys. There were others, with nudity and some kind of sexual act, but no intercourse. If I include everyone, sex and almost sex, I might be closer to twenty men.
            I began my sexual resume at age nineteen, with a mild-mannered college guy from Richmond. I moved on to newspaper people and cops, and retired at age thirty-two with my second husband, an ambitious, edgy, green-eyed Philadelphian whose hands are always warm and comforting.
            The one person I didn’t really know was the second guy. Our paths crossed when he was in town on business and after spending a grand total of two hours with him, he left town. I felt the itch and motivated myself to follow him across the country for sex.
            It was 1985, and we met when I was working as a waitress during my summer break from college. He came in for dinner and caught my attention right away. I thought he was very handsome. He reminded me of Kurt Russell, the way he looked in “Escape From New York,” except without the eye patch. He took notice of me and carried on about how               I looked like Anne Bancroft. He loved the dark hair and bedroom eyes. He told me he was in computer sales and in Virginia for a convention. He asked me to guess his age and it turned out he was ten years older than I. Cool. 
            During his two-hour stay at the restaurant, he was like a wave. He flirted outrageously, as did I. Before he left, he gave me his business card.  On the back side, he wrote his home address and phone number. He asked me to meet him at his hotel the next day, so we could get to know each other.
            The next morning, I arrived wearing crisp, white shorts and my matching sorority shirt. I walked into the lobby like I was a movie starlet on set. We sat on a sofa and talked. I giggled constantly. I went back the next day, carrying flowers, and hoping my hair looked the way Madonna’s did that year–messy, sexy, and unlike a virgin. He kissed me on the bed in his hotel room. I felt his body through his clothes. We made plans to meet at his house in San Diego before I went back to college for the fall.
            He flew home and within days, wrote to me. His letters were filled with adventure stories: Biking trips, watching a mesmerizing city skyline, eating lobster and drinking beer in Mexico, driving along endless miles of beach on
Pacific Coast Highway
. The frequency and detail of his letters depended on how sure I was about making the trip. The more anxious I sounded on the phone, the more letters came.  He told me to make a stand for myself, not to miss a chance for closeness and fun. He thanked me for making him feel things he hadn’t felt in a long time.

            I spent my summer working and shopping for nice clothes. Everyone at the restaurant knew what was going on. They all thought I was crazy, especially Big John, the owner. One afternoon before my shift started, he asked me into his office.
            “I hear you are planning something crazy for a guy you don’t know,” he said.
            “Yes?” I said.
            “Do you really need to go all the way across the country to get a boyfriend? There are guys working here,” he said.
             “The busboys?” I shifted my weight and leaned up against a filing cabinet. “I can get those at college,” I said. “This guy is different, older. He’s got a life.”
            He stopped counting money and looked at me.  The office was quiet.  
            “You’re crazy. After you have sex with him, he’s going to drop you. If he likes you so damn much, he’d walk back here from California. Tell him to come here to get to know you and your family,” he said.
            I knew that would never happen. I adjusted my cummerbund.
            “Well, I know what I’m doing,” I said, “It’ll be fine.”

            All of this was happening as I tried to forge my own way and make decisions for myself. My older brother didn’t say anything. My father took an observer’s position, but my mother was outspoken and furious.  She fumed whenever I got a letter or call. She complained that I was tying up the phone too much. She threatened to disinherit me. At least once, she called him at 3 a.m. Pacific Time, so he implemented the “Mother Project,” urging me to find ways to manage her until my departure. She finally stopped talking.
            It was the summer of 1985. I was just realizing that AIDS was something that could threaten me. Before that year, I thought it was a disease for gays, hemophiliacs and people who spent their time shooting heroin. Then, I woke up when Life magazine did a cover story on AIDS and the headline said something like, “Now No One Is Safe from AIDS.”  About a week before I went, I called him.
            “Do you have any diseases?”
            “No, no way.” I didn’t ask him to prove it.
            “Jesus Christ. I’m sorry. I just have to stop listening to everyone and thinking so much.”
            “Good girl.”

            His place was up on a hill. It was a small, bungalow-style house with two bedrooms, a living room, a bathroom and kitchen. I felt like I was in Beverly Hills or something.  The floors were hardwood, the furniture well-placed and neat. There were a lot of windows that you could sit in front of and see the city’s lights at night. We slept with T-shirts on and were naked from the waist down. I used a spermicidal diaphragm I hoped would kill any viruses he might have. I didn’t have any orgasms but I felt close to him, anyway. I daydreamed about transferring from my North Carolina college to a university near him.  We could live together, get married and have kids.
            He worked during the days and I rode a bike to the waterfront or walked around his neighborhood. I cooked meals, dusted furniture, and shopped at a corner market. Everything seemed brighter, bigger. The plants seemed huge, the flowers tremendous. The trees seemed taller. The sky was always blue and the nights were cool. Some days he took off work and we went places together. We drank wine by the ocean, took a ferry to Catalina Island for the weekend, and drove to hole-in-the-wall restaurants for great Mexican dinners. I called my mother and told her she was wrong.
            About a week into the trip, I met some members of his family.  We planned a cookout for them. When they arrived, I could tell his parents were money. They wore nice clothes and jewelry, spoke of their travels and easy lifestyle. They were nice people, but I felt awkward around them. They knew he picked me up in a restaurant and that I came out without knowing him. I felt embarrassed, thinking they might know something I didn’t.  While I was in the bathroom, I overheard his mother talking about how I was still in college. She kept telling him I was too young. After I told his father how much of a struggle it was for me to get there, and that people had tried to stop me, he looked at me point blank and said: “If you were my daughter, I would have chained you to the bedpost.”
            The next day, we fought. He wanted me to leave a week earlier than I planned.
            “Change it. Call American and tell them you had a death in the family and have to be back sooner,” he said.
            He was impatient and distant.
            “OK,” I said.
            He left for work. I sat in his living room, by the computer, and spent most of the morning on the phone trying to convince a supervisor for American Airlines that someone in my family was dead. He made the change and I apologized for the trouble. When I hung up, I sat and stared at the furniture. I began to look through cabinets, drawers and closets, for papers, bills, proof.  I found a lot of pictures of girls in the back of the guest room closet. Most of them were dark-haired, like me. A lot of Latina and Hawaiian girls. There were letters in his desk. One of them was from a girl who was coming over from Vegas to see him for his birthday. I studied the postmark on another letter, and then opened the envelope. It was from someone he met during the same trip he met me.
            I confronted him. He said I had no business going through his things. He was angry. I relented. The trip was ending and I didn’t want to leave on a bad note. The morning I left, he dropped me off at the airport curb. He gave me some cash to cover the ticket I had purchased to visit him. He told me it was a thank you gift for helping him prove to his friends he could get me out there.
            My brother picked me up. My parents didn’t want to talk to me or know anything about the trip. About a week after I got back, he sent me picture prints, but no negatives. He said he needed to keep them in case I got mad at him someday. There were no nude shots, but I did let him take pictures of me in my underwear. I was too sad to argue with him. I planned to buy a photo album, but ended up putting my pictures in a brown envelope with his letters.
            The next week, I went back to college. I felt safe there, away from the summer’s disappointment and my mother’s silence. I called him a few times during those months, and there were some letters exchanged between us. Our contact was infrequent, impersonal and brief. His letters were thin, double-spaced and written on small pieces of paper. I graduated in December and got an internship that put me in a new city.
            About a year after I went to California, I started getting sick. I was renting a room from an elderly couple, working at a newspaper near Washington, D.C., and feeling tired all the time. I got different things: Urinary tract infections, respiratory illnesses, fatigue, weight loss. I was working a lot of hours and put down my poor health to stress. I also wondered if it might be AIDS, which by now, with Rock Hudson dead, was the biggest story out there. I told the doctor about my trip and asked for an AIDS test. During those months, I would stand in front of the mirror every morning, naked, and look for unexplained rashes and lesions. I looked at my reflection and imagined thorns all over me. What a dumb broad.
            After the second negative test, I stopped taking them and tried harder to put that summer behind me. That trip hurt me and ruptured my relationship with my mother. She took it personally and was ashamed at the lengths I went to for a man. Eventually, I moved on, but I wasn’t the same girl. I was different. I had less faith in people and viewed them skeptically.
            The last time I called him was in 1989. I don’t know why I did. I think I was just making sure he was alive and that his life wasn’t too different from when I visited him. He talked to me and said he was serious with a girl. He said something about getting married. I told him I was a journalist. He said he was sorry for acting the way he did toward me. I told him he was fine.
            I never spoke to him again. Years went by and bigger things happened. My brother died of cancer. My mother got dementia and quit life. I married my second husband and we had three children. My husband tells me the same things every week: I am beautiful, entertaining, and interesting. He is obsessed with his wife, he says. He says the first time he ever saw me, he felt a cord unravel itself from deep inside him and attach itself to me.
            He does silly things. He’ll go grocery shopping with me and wander into different aisles, waiting for me to come around. He likes to pretend he has never seen me before and imagines what he could do to introduce himself. He writes letters to me, on his way somewhere, 30,000 feet above the United States, telling me about his incredible life. He says he could live in meager surroundings, in any city in the world, as long as I live there, too. Things get bumpy from time to time, but we have great passion, mutual understanding and a good life together.
            Now and then, I think about my trip to California. It comes to me the same way you think about being in a car accident. You were there and it happened, but as time goes on, it fades, and you don’t want to bring it into focus anymore. But I can. I can bring it back, razor sharp, anytime. I can find the pictures and the letters. They are valuable to me because I have daughters and a son, and you know, life moves around in circles.

Loukia Borrell has been writing for more than two decades. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Virginian-Pilot, St. Petersburg Times, New York Times Regional Newspapers, and in various other magazines and newspapers. She has authored a book, Raping Aphrodite, a fictional work based, in part, on the 1974 invasion and division of Cyprus. A native of Ohio, Borrell was raised in Virginia, where she lives with her husband and their three children.

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