By Ben Lerner, from 10:04, a novel published this month by Faber and Faber. Lerner is the author of a previous novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, and three books of poems.
I’d told the protester that he could use my shower. He was a few years younger than I and taller, so much taller — easily six foot three — that he made the building feel smaller; he had to duck so as not to hit his head on the landing as he followed me up the stairs to my third-floor apartment. He set his oversize climbing backpack beside the door and sat on the top stair to take his shoes off before entering although I told him it wasn’t necessary, and while he did so I could smell a variety of odors: sweat, tobacco, dog, the must of his socks. I asked him how long he had been sleeping in the park and he said a week, but that he’d been at one encampment or another across the country for more than six weeks. He’d been picked up at his door in Akron — he had been living in his parents’ basement — by a caravan of protesters he’d made contact with on Craigslist, just as Craigslist was being used to connect protesters with people in the city who would let them use their bathrooms. He smiled his disarming smile without interruption. Did I go to Zuccotti a lot? he asked me.
It was eight or so, the time I normally had dinner, and I asked if he was hungry, explained that I couldn’t really cook, but was going to make some sort of stir-fry, and he said sure. It was only when I got the towels that I’d washed for him out of the dryer — my apartment had a small washer-and-dryer unit in the closet — that I thought to ask, a little embarrassed by the luxury, if he wanted to wash any clothes. Definitely, he said, and I showed him how it worked; he got his backpack and emptied the clothes it contained into the washer but wore what he had on into the bathroom.
When I started chopping vegetables I realized I wasn’t really hungry, had probably thought to cook just to have something to offer and because I wanted some activity to undertake while my bathroom was occupied. I opened a bottle of wine. I put on red quinoa to boil and found some tofu in the back of the fridge that looked okay and added it to the broccoli and squash while the garlic and onions simmered in the oil. From the kitchen I could see steam escaping from the bathroom door. I put my phone into the little speaker dock and instructed it to play The Very Best of Nina Simone — I wanted to drown out any sounds he might make before showering that could embarrass us.
While I stirred the vegetables I realized with slowly dawning alarm that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d cooked by myself for another person — I could not, in fact, ever remember having done so. I’d cooked with people plenty, usually acting as a dazzlingly incompetent sous chef for friends or family. On various occasions I’d said to a woman I was interested in, “I would invite you to dinner, but I can’t cook,” at which point I would hope she’d say, “I’m a great cook,” so I could ask her to come over and teach me; then we’d get drunk in the kitchen while I dis- played what I hoped was my endearing clumsiness, never learning anything. Excepting the sandwiches I had made for my friend Alex when she had mono — and even those I tended to buy and not prepare — I simply could not recall a single instance in which I had by myself constructed a meal, however rudimentary, for another human being. The closest memory I could summon was of scrambling eggs on Mother’s or Father’s Day as a child, but the uncelebrated parent, as well as my brother, always assisted me. Conversely, there was simply no end to the number of meals I could recall other people making for me, thousands upon thousands of meals, a quantity of food that would have to be measured in tons, dating from my mother’s milk to the present; just that week Aaron had roasted a chicken for our monthly dinner; Alena had made some kind of delicious trio of Middle Eastern salads the night before; in neither meal had I lent a hand, although I’d cursorily offered. Typically my contribution was just wine, itself the carefully aged work of others. Surely there were instances I was forgetting, but even assuming there were, they were exceedingly rare.
I would like to say my recognition of this asymmetry led me to meditate — as I added soy sauce and pepper to what was destined to be a meal of prodigious blandness — on the pleasure I was taking in cooking for my fellow man as he bathed, but I was aware at that point of no pleasure. I would like to say that, at the very least, I resolved to cook henceforth for my friends, to be a producer and not a consumer alone of those substances necessary for sustenance and growth within my immediate community. I would like to say that, as the protester finished his shower, I was disturbed by the contradiction between my avowed political materialism and my inexperience with this brand of making, of poiesis, but I could dodge or dampen that contradiction via my hatred of Brooklyn’s boutique biopolitics, in which spending obscene sums and endless hours on stylized food preparation somehow enabled the conflation of self-care and political radicalism. Moreover, what did it mean to say that Aaron or Alena had prepared those meals for me, when the ingredients were grown and picked and packaged and transported by others in a system of great majesty and murderous stupidity? Realizing my selfishness just led to more selfishness; that is, I felt lonely, felt sorry for myself, despite the fact that I was so often cooked for, because, as I stood there in my little kitchen stirring vegetables, stood there at the age of thirty-three, I was crushed to realize nobody depended on me for this fundamental mode of care, of nurturing, nourishing. “Don’t leave me,” Nina Simone begged in French, and, for the first time I could remember — whether or not the desire was a non sequitur — I wanted a child, wanted one badly.
Then I recoiled at the thought, wanted one not at all. So this is how it works, I said to myself, as if I’d caught an ideological mechanism in flagrante delicto: You let a young man committed to anticapitalist struggle shower in your overpriced rental apartment and, while you prepare a meal to eat in common, your thoughts lead you inexorably to the desire to reproduce your own genetic material within some version of a bourgeois household, that almost caricatural transvaluation of values lubricated by wine and song. Your gesture of briefly placing a tiny part of the domestic — your bathroom — into the commons leads you to redescribe the possibility of collective politics as the private drama of the family. All this in the time it took to prepare an Andean chenopod. What you need to do is harness the self-love you are hypostatizing as offspring, as the next generation of you, and let it branch out horizontally into the possibility of a transpersonal revolutionary subject in the present and co- construct a world in which moments can be something other than the elements of profit.
The food was okay, but the protester kept saying it was awesome. He had put his dirty clothes back on but looked and smelled refreshed. He drank only water, but the food made him voluble, and, as his clothes banged around in the dryer, he talked to me about his travels, how more than anything else — debating everybody about everything, getting kettled and beaten by police on the Brooklyn Bridge, learning to wire generators, quitting drinking — his experiences in what he called the movement had helped him chill out, as he put it, about men. I thought he was embarking on a story of sexual awakening, but he meant something more general: instead of assuming that every male stranger past puberty was a physical and psychosocial threat, he was now open to the possibility of their decency. For as long as I can remember, he said, whenever I walk past a guy on the street or see a guy in another car or the halls of a building, what I’m thinking to myself, consciously or not, is: Can I take him, who would win the fight? Almost every man thinks that way, the protester said, and I agreed, even though my awareness of that line of thinking had diminished steadily if incrementally since I was a teen. When I’d opened the door for the protester, though, and sized up his height, had my chances in a fight occurred to me? Probably. But I don’t think that way anymore, the protester said, not after so many experiences like this, referring, I supposed, to my letting him shower, sharing food.
We talked about the latest NYPD brutality for a while and then he said, You know how when you’re a kid and you go to the bathroom with other boys, I mean you’re standing side by side, pissing — I was a little worried where the protester was going with this — the big thing was looking at the other kid’s dick out of curiosity, and as you got older that became more and more of an offense, could get you called a faggot or whatever, and so that stops at some point, unless you’re cruising maybe, I don’t know. But then sometime in middle school, or maybe for some people it’s high school, there is this kind of performance that starts when you take your dick out of your pants to piss in a urinal, you start bending at the knees just a little, or otherwise making a show as if you were lifting some kind of weight.
I was laughing because I did know what the protester was talking about, knew exactly, but had somehow never noted the widespread practice consciously. Countless instances flashed before my eyes — in locker rooms in Kansas as a kid, more recently in airports all over the country and in large restaurants, two of the only institutions where I now urinated in company because at school I always entered a stall; many men, maybe the majority, would act, as they took themselves in hand, as if they were grasping, at the minimum, a heavy pipe, and others as though they were preparing themselves for a feat of superhuman strength, often then making a show of supporting their backs with the free arm if they held their penis with one hand, or grasping their members with two hands, as if either of those postures were required by the weight. I tried to recall if I’d seen this in other countries. Regardless, we were both laughing by this point, laughing as hard as I’d laughed in a long time, because now the protester stood and started miming perfectly there in my dining room the Midwestern man’s ritual premicturition display.
I saw my dad do it and my coaches and my friends, and I did it basically without knowing it, had done it all my life, the protester said, catching his breath, and then the other day we were in the McDonald’s bathroom by the park where the manager lets us go and my friend Chris was just like, When are you going to quit acting like it weighs so much, man? Do you need help with that or something? And that was the first time I even realized I was doing it, realized that all these men were always doing it, and I just stopped. I mean, I know it’s not the point of Occupy, but I’m telling you that now I don’t size men up in terms of fights all the time and I don’t act like my cock weighs a ton and it does make me see the world a little differently, you know?