E10: Siblings with Benefits

DAY 98. 1,085 MI. TO GO

12 min read

What good does it do to sit here, years later, and stew in this humililation? Why do I keep re-living the Story of Jolene and the Motel 6?

It’s a good question. Here’s an ever better one: why not stand up off this dusty ground and walk the last two, maybe three hundred yards to reach the Temple?

Look at it there: with its still golden light emanating from inside, backdropped against the impossibly starry sky. It’s beautiful. Why won’t I allow myself to get there?

I’ve searched for years for a sophisticated answer, and the best I can do is: I’m terrified. Perhaps that is as sophisticated as it gets.

I know one thing that has kept me stuck. It’s this Story—rather, this series of stories that were set in motion that night at the Motel 6. Or maybe they were always in motion, maybe they were inevitable… maybe it was this feeling—terror, fear, shame?—that was my true destination the whole time? It’s hard to know. Here is where I reach my limits as a storyteller. If this were fiction—a novel, a movie, a performance—than it might be easier to wrestle with what it is that’s supposed to happen to my character next. Should an up follow a down? Should a left follow a right? Shouldn’t there be some template, some path, some formula, some way to get it right? But this is no fiction—not, at least, in the colloquial sense. This is real. This is the Story of what happened, and the story of what happened next.

I’m terrified. But I want to re-enter that Temple. I’m searching for something: a memory, a key, a new formula or path. I know I’m rambling, I can’t help myself. Is this the bit that should be edited out? How do you know what bits should be edited out? What works? What fits? What should should should should should shouldn’t someone tell me what I’m supposed to be doing here? Do you know? Do you know what I mean? Is it okay to tell a Story about being lost, about being confused, about using too many commas, is this even grammatically correct, is there anything to learn from more self-pity, is there an END

Deep breath. Feel the ground beneath my feet. Keep the Temple in my sights, and just walk. Just walk. To whatever it is that is coming next.

nearly a month later.
still in arcata, california

DAY 108
920 MI. TO GO

“You’re not lost,” assured Jenn. “I totally get you. You’re just a curbside prophet with your hand in your pocket, waiting for your rocket to come.” I must have made a face, because she repeated herself. “A curbside prophet with your hand in your pocket, waiting for your rocket, y’all.”

“Is that a euphemism?” I asked.

“No. It’s a Jason Mraz song.”

I was still in Arcata, California. Jason Mraz was a singer I didn’t know. And Jenn was a nineteen-year-old sophomore at Humboldt State University—majoring in dance and minoring in women’s studies—who had a thing about talking in song lyrics. It was the middle of December, the awnings of the Victorian houses were fringed with Christmas lights and caked with thick moss from the never-ending, frigid rain. I was playing Beatles songs on Jenn’s guitar. Jenn was taking a drag of a joint while lying naked on her IKEA couch.

My phone buzzed on the coffee table. I didn’t even need to look at it to know who was sending me a text: Jolene had been overwhelming me with communication ever since that second, lonely and Borat-themed night at the Motel 6—phone calls, Facebook messages, emails, texts. Unconventional warfare. She was lurking in alleys, packing dynamite in the trunk of her minivan. It was an all-out emotional attack: gratitude, love, appreciation, rage, fury, desire, heartsickness. I had reached my limit, I had fought to maintain all my emotional defense, but the cracks in the foundations were showing, and now all I could do was take refuge with this sweet, gorgeous, insatiable nineteen-year-old—Jenn—who had taken me in and literally fucked me back to life.

It might sound icky, finding refuge with a college student. What felt icky was that this relationship with Jenn was the most intimate relationship with a woman that I’d ever had in my life.

“Once in a while you find the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right,” she told me. That wasn’t just wisdom. It was a lyric from the Grateful Dead.

Jenn came up with a name for our strange, temporary and highly intimate relationship.

She called us Siblings with Benefits.

Three weeks had gone by since the night at the Motel 6, and the problem was getting moving again. There were many obstacles in my way—the cold, the rain, the fact that the road south was going to take me right by Jolene’s front door. It was beyond convenient that I had ended up in a Siblings with Benefits relationship with sweet, gorgeous, insatiable Jenn. It was even more convenient that Jenn was willing to give me all the weed she could offer.

I was existentially stuck. Every day, every choice felt fraught with complex moral and emotional consequences—was it okay that I was having a no-strings-attached relationship with a teenager? Was it really no-strings-attached? Should I be nicer to Jolene? Should I be clearer? Shouldn’t I be doing a better job of honoring whatever it was that happened back there in the redwoods? I turned to Paul for advice, wisdom, guidance, direction, but Paul seemed unwilling to tell me what to do. The lesson seemed to be that these were my decisions to make.

Did I mention that Arcata was one of the capitals of the Northern California marijuana trade?

My choices felt clichéd and inevitable.

Jenn’s loft

What finally got me out of town was feeling sick of myself. It started when Jenn invited me to join her at some kind of performance event at one of the dorms on the Humboldt State Campus. The event was being hosted by some of her friends in the women’s studies program. We drove there in Jenn’s Pathfinder, leaving her loft—inside of a converted garage behind an old Victorian home—and arriving at a handsome and relatively modern communal room that was architected with grand beams of dark redwood. The event was an open mic. Perhaps fifty students sat on folding chairs and worn couches, facing a makeshift stage demarcated by Christmas lights. I sat next to Jenn not really knowing where things were headed.

One by one, a series of speakers approached the microphone, and one by one, they laid out a series of Stories that I could only describe as exceedingly traumatic. They were women’s stories, which meant that they were stories about loss, grief, abuse, rape. Each of these were words in my vocabulary, but to me they existed as concepts, dictionary definitions, abstract ideas that affected other people—i.e. not me—i.e. not men. I decided my role was best served as caring and enlightened observer.

(I suppose the concept I was searching for was privileged, but that hadn’t yet entered my vocabulary.)

Anyway, by then, I had heard many, many stories of this type. In between getting high and going to bed with Jenn, while in Arcata, I had endeavored to collect many, many love stories. I would spend my days hanging out on campus or hanging out around the grassy central Plaza at the center of the brick downtown striking up conversations with strangers and inviting them to let me record one of their stories about love. With each new collection to my storytelling library, I was becoming slightly more confident, slightly more like Paul, and slightly more assured in my role as a kind of cross between artist, storyteller, and something like a traveling priest. I was reifying my highest self, I was beginning to wonder whether I was the Messiah or just some kind of cousin of Jesus—the Bald Rapunzel, the great Saviour of the modern world. (At the same time, as I’ve mentioned, I was struggling with the reality of going to bed with a teenager and engaging in a relationship accurately described as Siblings with Benefits, while also smoking something like my body weight worth of weed every day. But wasn’t marijuana God’s plant? Was Jesus also a stoner? I declined to think too hard about these questions.)

Anyway, a new speaker took the makeshift stage: a young Latina woman with long brown hair and dark, almond-shaped eyes, and—I quickly noticed—a beautiful and voluptuous figure. This woman—let’s just go over the top here and call her JLo—JLo had a gorgeous, syrupy voice that drew me in as she began a unique song-cum-spoken word piece that was essentially an elegy to the man who had raped her. The emotions that JLo expressed in her piece were, to me, complex beyond her years. It was an all-out emotional attack: gratitude, love, appreciation, rage, fury, desire, heartsickness, but with a depth of feeling that far transcended Jolene’s guerilla warfare.

Even as sweet, gorgeous, insatiable Jenn was sitting in the folding chair beside me—and her scent was still on my fingers—I felt overwhelmed by my intense need to take JLo to bed.

As soon as the open mic event was over, I made a point of seeking out JLo to gush over her performance—how it inspired me, how it touched me, how it made me want to know her more. I took a glance over my shoulder—Jenn was talking to some friends on the far side of the room—and dropped my voice, explaining a little about my walk and my creative project, and asking whether she would want to participate in it. “I’d love to do a photo shoot,” I said. I got chills when JLo agreed. We exchanged numbers; I told her I’d be sticking around Arcata for a few more days.

Afterwards, back at Jenn’s loft behind the old Victorian, when we made love, I couldn’t stop thinking about this stunning Latina.

Neither Jenn nor JLo.

I waited two days—those were the Rules—before contacting JLo. We made plans to meet in downtown Arcata, on the grassy plaza, not far from the statue of President McKinley that stood in the center of the square.

Funny side story about that McKinley statue. It was funded by a local businessman who had once met the President, at the end of the 19th century, and wanted to honor the man after McKinley was assassinated. The statue was in a San Francisco foundry on the day of the Great Earthquake of 1906, and—according to an apocryphal story—was only saved from the fires by a dramatic story of luck and good fortune. Eventually, the statue made it up to Northern California and occupied that spot in the center of the town’s central square. Now what happened over the years was that time turned Arcata into a bastion of a particular blend of radical California liberalism. Maybe it was the local college, maybe it was the ascendance of the Northern California pot trade; whatever it was, Arcata prided itself as being one of the largest towns in America without a Starbucks, and all the retail outlets surrounding the McKinley statue were local bead shops and cafés and hydroponics stores, and not the Walgreens and CVS’ that marked the center of most coastal downtowns. In this milieu, McKinley became a kind of emblem of all that was wrong with the world—after all, he had been President when the U.S. had taken the Philippines. Starting from the Sixties, McKinley was continually defaced and branded as an insolent colonial bastard. Resistance picked up in the 2010s, and in 2019, the statue was finally taken down and shipped off to Canton, Ohio—home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

JLo was dressed in black pants, a cute wool bonnet, and a blood-red dress that clung to her figure. I don’t think either of us knew what to expect, but because I was the photographer—and, I reasoned, the Man—I decided it was my responsibility to take things somewhere.

We got into JLo’s Civic and drove north—by coincidence, not far from the same Beachcomber Café where I had stumbled into Jolene.

When we passed the café, my phone buzzed, as if Jolene knew I was thinking about her.

Anyway, JLo parked her Civic at a trailhead, I grabbed my camera, and we walked down the trail until we reached a spectacular vista atop a set of sheer volcanic cliffs. Big waves were exploding into the cliffs below us, and I had fine views north, back towards the redwoods. JLo began to pose for my camera. There was a nice, playful vibe between us as I snapped my shutter fiendishly, directing her to move in a variety of PG-rated poses.

Did I want to sleep with her? Should I want to sleep with her? Should I get her in the mood by inviting her to share the joint I had tucked into my pocket? Quickly, both Jenn and Jolene were dropping from my mind. But the thing I was finding harder to forget was JLo’s Story. Here was this beautiful, voluptuous, sensuous woman who was pouting her lips and looking at me through my camera in a way that I had rarely been considered by a real woman, but with an expression that I was innately familiar with through porn and advertising. Look at those hips! Look at those breasts! But at the same time, I could still hear her silken voice straining to articulate the complexity of what she still felt towards the man who had raped her. Could I should I did I still feel desire for a woman who had experienced that? And how different was that from what I was dying to do to her in that very moment? Here was yet another question that I had absolutely no desire to unpack—not with JLo stretching her arms upward, arching out her back, extending her breasts towards me.

Nearby, there was a crevice in the cliffs. You could climb down thirty or forty feet to get down to the wet rocks next to the surf. I invited, JLo accepted. We clambered down together into the secluded area, surrounded by rock, hemmed in by sea. There were grey clouds overhead, and it started drizzling. I wondered aloud whether JLo might be interested in taking off her black pants, in posing wearing nothing but her blood-red dress that was already sopping, the material clinging to her skin. Her long hair was wet. Her poses turned increasingly lascivious. There’s this one shot of her bent over a rock, hair tossed to the side, hands wrenched like feline claws, that strikes me today as a brilliant copy of some bonafide fashion photographer’s work. She was beautiful and sexy and laughing and flirty, and the truth was that I wasn’t in the slightest bit turned on. Her pouty lips weren’t directed at me, they were for the camera, they were for some unknowable observer, maybe they were also a copy of some bonafide fashion model’s work. But in any case, we were alone, pinned in by the ocean, and it occurred to me that there was this script, this template, I was supposed to follow, because I had the camera—because I was supposed to be the Man.

My choices felt clichéd and inevitable when I finally asked her to take off her dress. Se looked at me and—so kindly, so sweetly—explained that she’d rather not, she had a boyfriend, she’d promised him that he would be the first to photograph her naked. Of course, I told her I understood. Thank you so much for being honest, no it’s not a problem at all. Of course there was another he, another him. It was easier when I didn’t have to be the Man.

The photoshoot continued—there was no awkwardness, not even a hitch. When it ended, she drove me back to McKinley, where we said goodbye with a hug, and I never saw JLo again. I went back to Jenn’s, I went back into her bed, but when I held her sweet, gorgeous, insatiable body in my hands, I suddenly realized that I was performing in a role I didn’t truly understand, and I liked her too much to keep going.

Like I said, I had become sick of myself, and afterward, I announced that I was going to leave town the next day.

Weeks earlier, when I first arrived in California, I had stopped in a small town called Crescent City, about twenty miles south of the Oregon State Line. There, I had been taken in by a family—a set of parents in their young forties, with two twentysomething sons. One son was away in Haiti with their church group, helping to rebuild after the recent earthquake. The younger son had just returned from a year in Los Angeles, where he was in rehab detoxing from his heroin addiction.

The younger son’s name was Connor, and I had connected with him quickly. Connor was only twenty, and he also felt like a Sibling with Benefits—though in a way that was far different (and less sexual) than my relationship with Jenn. Connor had only been home in Crescent City for a few days, and we bonded over the fact that we were both outcasts, both trying to come to terms with the depths of our ongoing transformations.

I had never met anyone who had ever tried heroin, let alone been addicted to it, so I became fascinated with Connor—how he had started using, why, what problem he was trying to numb, and what had helped accelerate his healing. Rehab and addiction were also words in my vocabulary, but they too merely existed as abstract concepts. Connor didn’t do much to explain. He didn’t really want to talk about what had happened down there, but it was clear to me that something had happened; I could tell by the way he carried himself. He was confident and self-assured in a way that would be foreign to most twenty-year-olds. He knew who he was, or maybe he knew what he wasn’t, or whatever it was, I could feel it, and that made him likeable and trustworthy. In a way I fell in love with him, with what he represented.

I took it for granted that there was a connection between addiction and drugs, but I held pot in a different category, and I couldn’t yet conceive of addictions to other things like money or work or sex or adrenaline or the promises of intimacy. These were beyond my concepts also. That night before I left Arcata, though, I lay awake and listened to Jenn breathe while I thought about Connor. What was becoming of me? Did I like who I was becoming? Could I trust that I was heading in the right direction, was there any merit to what I was doing besides following this strange little voice inside of me that kept whispering, kept beckoning to keep walking? I didn’t know, I couldn’t know, how could I know?

Do you know? Do you know what I mean? Is it okay to tell a Story about being lost, about being confused, about using too many commas, is this even grammatically correct, is there anything to learn from more self-pity, is there an end…

Deep breath. Feel the ground beneath my feet. Focus on what Sam had called the intention in my steps. It didn’t make sense, it couldn’t make sense, I was on the verge of chaos. There was no turning back, no other direction but forward. Into the redwoods. Heading to Jolene’s front door.

The next morning, I kissed Jenn goodbye, ending Siblings with Benefits, and deciding to just walk. Just walk. To whatever it is that is coming next.

Leaving Arcata