It seemed like Katie had dodged the stomach flu that afflicted you twice.
She wasn’t so lucky. While she did not begin the torment with rounds of vomiting, she did suffer stomach cramps for a night, then chills and fevers on the second day, and on the third–raging diarrhea all night long after your celebration dinner of tapas with Fred and Jenn.
El Camino de Santiago was over. Finished!
And you had a host in Porto, Portugal awaiting your arrival.
“What do you want to do?” you asked your pathetic, severly-dehydrated, sad-faced girlfriend.
Her response: “I want to get out of Spain as soon as possible.” As though Spain equaled stomach flu.
Poor Katie had to leave her hostel, sick as a dog--her hoice!–and stagger through the hot streets of Santiago in search of the road out, which unfortunately evaded you for hours. After a few frustration-induced cry breaks, and a great deal of time wandering, directionless,you found your spot, and in short order a nice young woman took you a few dozen kilometers south and dropped you on a busy southbound national road next to the motorway. Two options.
Katie alternated between crouching in a defensive little ball, and wavering on her feet like a drunkard, thumb out.
You knew the national road would take forever, so you climbed the ramp to the road leading to the motorway and hoped for the best. It was hot. The sun, strong. The traffic… light. Few people passed. The driver of a road service vehicle waggled his finger at you, indicating that he wanted you off that road, but you ignored him.
20 minutes passed. Probably no more. A nice Portugese man was going to Porto. All the way.
Despite a half-dead Katie in the back seat, despite having suffered your early-morning circumstances, it was a great day of hitch hiking. Your driver bought you a Spanish tortilla and a fresh-squeezed orange juice and implored Katie to consider a hospital.
No thanks. You borrowed his phone and called your host instead. Then made the two men coordinate a drop-off point. They took care of the rest. Shuttled you from one car to another, seamlessly.
What can you say about your host, Mr. Blackl? He’s a 40-something man who lives alone, and is a self-proclaimed “couch surfing slut.” He loves to host. And why not? With more freedom, and flexible hours and organized life, he has time and energy to spare.
Mr. Black’s place was nothing short of paradise. Exactly what you needed. When Katie was D.O.A., he showed you to your room and said that he would be back in several hours, and help yourself to freshly-baked coriander bread, cheese, tea, oranges. Whatever you could find. Relax! Just relax!
No noisy albergues. No snoring. No chilly tile floors. No pressure. Sleep! Rest! Relax…
Your brain, having been flexed and constricted in Camino Mode for 38 days, slowly deflated as you surfed the internet and watched a bunch of rubbish. Katie lie on the bed next to you, catching flies and burning with fever. You organized a few photos, answered a few email, and just… ahhhh……
Mr. Black met you the next morning with brunch in his over-sized back yard: freshly-squeezed organic orange juice, cheese, fruit, museli, yogurt, coffee with milk, tea, home made bread, and more. The weather was perfect. Not a hint of wind. Just sweet, outdoor bliss.
Followed by a session in his very own steam room.
“I could do with a Turkish bath,” you had been saying to Katie from time to time during The Camino. “The kind where they scrub all the filth off your body–” in this case, the filth of The Camino– “and it just comes of in sheets. Little rolls of black, dead skin, taken away with an exfoliating glove.”
“Yes,” said Mr. Black. “I have everything. I will get it for you. I have salt body scrubs, and gloves, and water, and scented candles, and everything. All because of my ex-girlfriend. She is from Latvia. They are very into steam rooms and all these things.”
You were totally pumped.
“Just one thing,” he said, pausing. “I am sorry it this sounds weird.”
“Normally, I go into the steam room naked. But I know that you are Americans, and maybe this is weird for you. So I must ask, what should we wear? Something?”
Katie was unsure how to act. You didn’t leave her time to make the call–just made it for her.
“Well, in America, we don’t like to show our bodies, so I think we will wear bathing suits.” Perhaps it was just an excuse to wear your bikini, which you’d been carrying for 6 months and had yet to use. But really, it was because Katie, unlike yourself, had no real experience being naked in front of strangers.
This nudity thing would come up again and again. As other couch surfers came and went, and the steam room happened again and again–and as you found yourselves skinny dipping in a natural park under a waterfall–you allowed yourself to feel comfortable naked in European company. As did Katie.
After four years of gang showers, nudity isn’t exactly awkward for you. But upon closer examination, perhaps it is. After all, in America, nudity is generally associated with sex, or eroticism. Americans would much rather show violence on TV than nudity. You explained this to Mr. Black, to whom it wasn’t exactly news; that’s why he double-checked with you in the first place.
But attention went away from nudity and to the subject of “touching.” Touching, for you–personally–is a big deal. America is not a touchy-feely country. People shake hands; they don’t kiss on the cheeks. People speak across larger distances. There are rules of etiquette on how to distance yourself from others in public spaces like buses, movie theaters, and park benches. Americans like their space. If two people hold hands on the street, they are usually a couple–not merely friends.
“I love to touch,” Mr. Black said. “I’m a very affectionate guy. I just touch my friends–to connect with them.”
Sure, that all sounds reasonable. But this is not what you do. You were not raised in a family of big touchers. Hugging was infrequent; kissing, even rarer. You are, furthermore, insanely ticklish, and prone to goosebumps. Runs in your family.
“So let’s say you like someone… like you have a friend, and there is no romantic connection and–”
“We do not touch,” you cut in.
“No.” Firm. “I don’t have that kind of relationship with my friends. Only my lovers. And my friends don’t try to touch me. And we really don’t have to talk about it.”
“That’s so weird,” Mr. Black said. “It’s just that women generally like touching. They touch a lot. Because they are women.”
Not that kind of woman.
And was he trying to lower your guard, remind you that you are a woman, and therefore should be okay with touching?
Mr. Black continued on this conversational vein for some time. The more you discussed it, the more you began to feel like a heartless, alien, unfeminine, non-tactile creature.
“Eeeeerrrr, ummm, I don’t know. It’s partly because I’m American. It’s partly because I’m me.” You thought longer about different kinds of touch. And then had a total eureka moment. “Actually, I don’t think I ever feel weird when a woman touches me. Like, never.”
“Yeah, it’s really just when men touch me.”
The fact that you’re gay should be obvious to most people, and usually goes without saying. Maybe sometimes people miss this point. Maybe sometimes people want to play dumb, pretend that you are straight, to maintain a neat little cover of innocence and ambiguity over their subtle advances.
You shrug, at Mr. Black, who is scarcely visible through the thick clouds of steam. The room’s tiny window, situated just over your head, allows just enough light–all of which hits your body. You are certain your breasts are fully illuminated.
“When men touch me, they are interested in sex. This is just my experience. Women don’t normally touch me. They have no reason to, unless, let’s say, one finds me vomiting in the bathroom of my albergue.” Yes, not too long ago, some woman had rubbed your back, trying to sooth you.
“Yes, but for example, yesterday when we were in this steam room, I massaged your foot. You said your feet were sore from your long walk. I just thought it would be a nice thing to do.”
“It’s about context. It was a nice thing to do,” you confirmed, thinking back to your Couchsurfing host in Athens–
It was a story that was never told…
Back in 2011, in Athens, your host Dionysus had said on numerous occasions that you reminded him of his ex-wife—never a nice thing to hear. You knew, then, that you were his type. Later, Dionysus asked if you wanted to watch TV in his room. Sure!
And when you entered his room, he was seated upright in his twin bed–wearing nothing but his man panties.
Wow! Where the hell did his clothes go?
Some package! Nestled on top of his thighs, which were pressed together, legs extending toward the foot of the bed.
“Where should I sit?” you asked, trying to look at anything but that… that… amazing… oh-for-the-love-of-God-this-is-so-awkward!
He patted the mattress next to him. “Here. We watch.”
Let the games begin.
You wanted to see where it all would go. Some curious fascination with men guided you–you are always curious about the lengths to which they will go in order to obtain sex. The barbarism of it all is sometimes too rich, too irresistible, too a.n.e.c.d.o.t.a.l.
So you sat next to Dionysus on his teeny twin bed, feeling the skin of your arm pressing against the skin of his arm. The material of your pants rubbed the hair on his thick thighs.
Dionysus was a man of few words due to his mere intermediate command of English. You cannot say at this point what you talked about. This much is forgotten. But you recall the moment when he said, “Massage?”
Oh Jesus, he wants to massage you.
Make no mistake! This is usually a precursor to sex. Touching. An excuse to touch, because you cannot have sex without touching. Touching must begin in benign, non-threatening ways… like two arms pressed together while watching TV.
“Nahh… it’s okay. I don’t need a massage.”
“Foot massage!” he insisted, leaping from his seat next to you and pulling up a chair down by your feet.
You imagine how your eyes must have narrowed suspiciously. “I’m very ticklish.”
In the end, you decided to let him to it. To see if it would remain a foot massage.
You kept your eyes on the TV, trying not to let him see how wide they were with astonishment. Over the course of 5 minutes, he had scooted his rump to the very edge of his chair, and was pressing the bottom of your foot firmly against his panty-clad package.
First time anyone has attempted to massage your foot with a penis…
For now, the story ends there. If you are ever consumed by a wave of raw man-hatred, perhaps one day you will tell the rest.
Right! So when Mr. Black had offered to massage your feet on the first day in the steam room, while you wore your bathing suit, the context was different–because you had been bitching incessantly about how sore your legs and feet were.
But on the next day, when you returned to the steam room, naked this time, and were having all your discussions about touching, you head started to spin. You knew that you resembled his ex-girlfriend.
It was a fact he reiterated in the steam room, along with “I actually think you are the most attractive woman I have ever seen.”
Truly, it was a sincere, sweet compliment, and artfully delivered. You took no offense, and you did not feel uncomfortable–not exactly. But you admit that a little warning light on your control panel started to flash. This was habit. This was inevitable. This made you significantly more sensitive to every future interaction. Better not to let him massage your feet, just in case his offer was in any way strategic.
Mr. Black made a point of explaining his fears about making women feel uncomfortable by touching them, paying them compliments, etc. He is perfectly aware that he is an older man, that he frequently has younger women visiting his house, that sometimes steam rooms and back scrubbing and leg massages happen…
His deep fear is that he will find himself in such circumstances with a girl who is too naive to understand the difference between volition and coercion.
“This is a very legitimate fear, Mr. Black,” you said. “Women, by nature, want to please. They want to keep social interactions smooth, conflict free. They don’t know where to draw the line when men advance towards them with baby steps–not without making it awkward. If you touch her elbow, no big deal. You touch her shoulder, fine. You touch the small of her back, you’re getting closer. You touch her thigh… hmmmm… at what point does she say, ‘Hey, you can stop touching me now,’ and still preserve what had been, up to that point, good-natured feelings?”
As you say this, you consider your own situation:
- You are naked
- You have been in multiple situations that allowed you to see his nakedness
- You have let him massage you
- You remind him of his ex-girlfriend
- You are the “most attractive woman” he has ever seen
Why, then, should you construe any further behavior as anything else but baby steps toward a more intimate relationship?
A woman will always perceive a situation differently–more conservatively–than a man will. You can never drop your suspicions of men when they try to touch you. Ever. Not until the majority of your experience with men changes. Experience teaches, and you are not in the mood to drop your defenses because you feel like giving some nice guy the benefit of the doubt; you will not drop your prejudices because someone demands egalitarian treatment.
And so the conversation turns in that direction: how to make everyone equal.
“What is all this talk about racism, or feminism, or other isms?” Mr. Black said. “For example, race doesn’t exist.” He went on to explain how there is no concrete genetic basis for race, and that trying to draw geographical lines to define race doesn’t work either. “And with sex. Sex is not black and white. There is a spectrum.”
“If you cannot define someone’s sex, then how can you begin to define their sexual orientation,” you finished for him.
“Yes. These things don’t really exist. I believe that by saying you are a a non-racist person, then you say race exists. You give life to something you are trying to defeat.”
The line of reasoning extended to feminism, and to gender, and sexual preference. You couldn’t help but suspect him of trying to disarm you of your “Lezzie” label, to perhaps make yourself more accessible. You’re sure he was not trying to do this, but you suspected anyway. Blinking warning light…. that’s all.
“Let’s get back to touching,” you said, deciding to put the nail in the coffin. “If a gay man touches you, and you suspect him of being sexually interested in you… it doesn’t matter whether he is… All that matters is that you suspect him of being interested in you. How do you feel?”
Mr. Black admits that he would prefer that the gay man does not touch him.
“This is how I feel about men. If a man touches me in any manner that is at all ambiguous, I suspect his sexual attraction and feel uneasy. I don’t connect with men. I don’t give them space. They have no reason to touch me otherwise. A man touching me is like a potentially-interested gay man touching you. This is the same.”
End of the story.