The Tickle

I met him at one of those South of Market warehouse alternative-theater spaces—Eleutheria, I think it was called. It was opening night for an experimental piece. The program called for the audience, at one point, to gather in a circle and touch fingertips à la Adam and God in the Sistine chapel. There were about twenty of us and I'd noticed Fidelio from the beginning. His long straight hair flowed from under a fedora, a loose gray suit he'd probably gotten at Goodwill drooped over his small-boned frame, and a wispy mustache polished off the intriguingly louche look. His willowy body and delicate cheekbones made me think for a moment he might be in drag.

I maneuvered my way next to him. Our fingertips touched with a ping of electric current. It's only in my head, I thought; he's not interested in the likes of me. The finger-touching became interlaced hands. His skin was smooth as kitten down. I turned to smile at him, but his eyes stayed straight ahead, intent on the task. He released my hand as soon as the audience-participation business was done.

After the performance was over and plastic-cupped wine was being served in the lobby, he caught my eye again. I turned away. When I glanced back, sure enough: contact. I went to talk to him. His whispery, breathy voice forced me to lean in close. He was friends with the performer but the piece was too touchy-feely for him. He didn't like to have to do more than just absorb the play.

I took this as a hint that the electricity I felt was fantasy. Until he added, "Except sometimes you do meet new people."

I said, "Sometimes new people go dancing at The Stud."

"I've seen some interesting people there."

And so we left for The Stud. It was a safe choice, crowded and sweaty as usual. The year was 1988 and there were lots of acid-washed jeans, Doc Martens, and leather jackets. A tangle of scuff marks inscribed the wood floor. We talked a little but mostly danced and drank beer and inhaled the humid musk of the club. Fidelio danced with a herky jerky motion that dismayed me, until I realized the angularity was intentional and his moves worked in counterpoint to the song, as if he was arguing back. We brushed up against each other now and then. The ping was still there, but his eyes had a hooded inwardness that made it hard to know if he felt it too. I said hello to a few regulars I knew at the bar, which I hoped made me more cool in his eyes. 

I didn't take him home with me, but I got his number. And kept thinking about him. His sauntering, insouciant gait. The little buzz that had traveled down my loins when we touched. I wanted to know what was underneath that droopy gray suit. In my mind's eye I saw him shambling down the foggy, moist streets of the Tenderloin like a figure out of a ’40s movie, cuffed pant legs rippled by a gust of wind, the suit clinging to his shoulders like an ineffectual guardian. 

I called him once, I called him again, I called him once more. He played hard to get, first by not returning my messages, then by calling back when I'd said I'd be out. His voice on my machine carried a soft smirk. "It's so nice of you to call, Steven. Nice of you to try to . . . reach me. We seem to be ships passing in the night. Or is it strangers in the night? I never know which."

I replied in kind, doing my best to reel him in. I sang Strangers in Paradise to his answering machine; I proposed that we go see the new Jim Jarmusch movie at the Roxie.

One night, when I had a new line prepared for his machine, he picked up the phone.

"John?" he breathed into the mouthpiece.

"It's Steven. Is that you, Fidelio?"

No response. Only exhalation.

"I'm sorry I'm not John," I said.

"No you're not."

Before I could come up with a reply, he said, "I need someone to talk to."

He spoke in a different way. The words poured out of him in a stream, with little hesitation and little space for me to insert myself. 

He talked about the SRO hotel where he lived in the Tenderloin. The odor of ancient cigarettes oozed from the carpeting. Stains on the walls and furniture recorded happy and unhappy moments in the lives of past residents. Moans and whimpers drifted down the hallways. Men in frayed robes watched from cracks in doors as you walked by. Every night Fidelio laid his head on an old pillow squashed so flat that only the quills remained, the down turned to the texture of rotten eggplant. When he closed his eyes he heard murmuring voices from nearby rooms, but when he pressed his ear to the wall, the voices dissipated. They only came with his head on the pillow. The voices were trapped inside it, he decided: voices of all who'd lived there before him.

The thing that kept him sane, Fidelio said, were his birds. He smuggled them in as pets. They perched on dowels he'd fixed to the walls. Leather thongs tethered the birds to the dowels. The owner of the corner grocery gave him stale bread to feed them. Every morning Fidelio folded up the newspapers he'd spread beneath the dowels and dropped them into a public trash bin down the street.

The hotel was home to the usual Tenderloin cast of newly arrived immigrants and day laborers, retirees and the transgendered, transients and hookers. Fidelio kept a butterfly knife for protection. Weapons were prohibited in the hotel, so he cut a niche into the wall and installed a small shelf onto which he placed the knife. A framed photograph hung on the wall to cover the niche. If one of his birds got too noisy he'd snap open the knife and threaten to slice off its legs. The photograph showed his grandmother, a woman he said was as large and persistent as a sea lion. She wore a big floral dress whose material stretched itself into weary ripples as only polyester can. How she'd met and married and lost Fidelio's grandfather, a man from the far north, was a long and tragic epic, too long to tell. I asked Fidelio to tell it anyway.

"It's not for you," he replied. 

But he did go on talking about his grandmother. Her eyes were piercing and unfathomable, her face a fleshy bronze expanse, her chin like a small round fruit attached to her jaw and decorated with wisps of gray hair. The children in her neighborhood called her a witch, which suited her fine. She let the hair grow on her chin to give pause to anyone who might cross her. She’d taught Fidelio how to use the knife. She lived in a microscopic apartment in Daly City and he took the train out to visit her once a month. She treated him to a meal in the food court of the local mall. They ordered pork sisig and Kare Kare, savoring the abundant fat as much as the marrow of the bone.

The conversation ended abruptly with Fidelio saying to me, "I have to go. Talk to you later."

I stared at my phone receiver, feeling a cyclone had passed through it. 

He called back two nights later and regularly after that. The telephone unlocked some urge in him; we talked for hours at a time. Occasionally I got in a few words about myself, but mostly I listened. Once I tried to impress him by offering sage advice from my point of view as a dramaturge (I worked in theater). 

"I am speaking about my story—my dream," he interrupted.

Often, when I picked up the phone, there was no preamble. Fidelio just started talking. One night he said he'd found a secret door to get to the roof of his building. 

The lock on the door was flimsy and his knife pried it open easily. The door gave onto a set of narrow stairs, semi-enclosed by a musty bit of housing, redolent with rat droppings and pigeon feathers. He’s made it a habit to go up to the roof to watch the sunset or escape the sobs in the room next to his. When he leaves, he closes the door and adjusts the lock to make it look intact.

He decides, one evening, to release his wood pigeon on the roof. He goes through the door and turns a corner at the top of the stairs.

A sea of tarpaper spreads before him in the gloaming. Stovepipes and vents bob on it like buoys. Fidelio squats and, holding the bird in his left hand, cuts the thong with his right. The bird remains still. He gives it a gentle shove to the freedom of the tarpaper. Fidelio crouches behind a chimney. The bird takes tentative hops across the unexpectedly open surface. It's unsure what to do with its freedom, unsure if it remembers how to use its wings; unsure, Fidelio thinks, if it wants to have so much choice of where to go and how to feed.

Feral cats prowl the roof at dusk. Fidelio sees one now, ears aprick, tail and stomach flattened on the surface. It's evaluating the wood pigeon from the near shadows. The cat is pleased to have such a confused target at close range. It watches intently, looking for the trick, the catch. The bird's head darts this way and that but does not sight its stalker. Most of its brain is occupied with reconfiguring its internal map after weeks of being fed by hand. Fidelio identifies with both the cat and the bird. The bird, in a sudden flutter, tests flight but does not take off. The cat, having risen to its feet, settles back down to consider. Fidelio considers, too: has he merely fattened the bird for the pleasure of the cat? Or does he wish the bird to fly off to devour food of its own while the cat is forced to scrounge for scraps, at best a stringy rat? Everything must feed off something else, he reflects; life has no answer, only needs needing to be fulfilled. 

Fidelio stands. The particles of night's descent accumulate in his eyes. He hears a sound from the other side of the staircase housing. He takes a step to the left to see the source. A wild-haired woman squats on the roof, eyes glinting dirty gold in the dense air. Her hands are bathed in some kind of red dye. Her head tilts up and the brows contract a fraction into something less than a squint. The evil eye. Fidelio knows it well.

He hurries down the stairs and back into his room. He quivers in his bed, the fate of the bird and cat forgotten. He has not seen the woman before. He dares not contemplate the red liquid dripping from her hands.

In the dead of the night, he is awakened by a scraping at his door. He feels for the photograph, pushes it aside, and takes the knife in hand. He creeps toward the door, bent low, gaze fixed on the doorknob bulging in the yellow light pressing through his closed blinds. 

The doorknob does not turn, but he hears a voice. It’s low and raspy like autumn leaves, but the words are distinct. 

"I see your grave, Fidelio. I see it now. Your body is cold. Your blood is clotted. Fidelio-o-o-ohhh . . . ."

Fidelio sleeps on a friend’s sofa for the next two nights. He comes back to his hotel to learn that the woman in the room next to his has died. His first reaction is relief that he will not have to listen to her sobs through the wall. He wonders if it's wrong not to experience guilt. Her possessions have been boxed. The manager auctions them that evening. Fidelio cannot help himself, he stays until every item is disposed of, the prayer cards and saintly figurines and antimacassars and teeth, until every last piece of bric-a-brac has landed in hands of her friends and enemies in the hotel.

Lying in bed that night, it comes to Fidelio, in a body-stiffening panic, that the room is cursed. By noon he has packed. By evening he has moved to another hotel, even though it means losing the remainder of his advance-paid month's rent.

In his new room he carves a niche for his knife and covers it with the picture of his grandmother. Her eyes look out at him as testing as before. The obstinate beard juts from her chin. The next time he sees her for dinner, he’ll ask how to counter the curse. But he cannot ask sooner, he must wait for the dinner. The boundaries with his grandmother are clear.

During the day he works his busboy job and meets with his budding performance group. He tries to blend in with the neighborhood, wearing cheap jeans and button shirts. He trains himself to walk in the manner of a young man fresh off the boat. He watches the immigrant teenagers on the block and gauges the authority of their street strut and in what manner and for what purpose they spit on the sidewalk.

I venture to say that I'd like to see his new look. In person. How about meeting at The Stud again?

“I’m not accepting invitations,” he says, and hangs up.

I wonder if any of his stories are true. Some may be part of a persona he's inventing for a performance. Probably he does live somewhere in the Tenderloin. Maybe he even heard a raspy voice at the door and has a bearded grandmother who taught him to use a knife. But he's enlarging it all. 

Somewhere along the way I must have told him where I live. One afternoon, Fidelio shows up at my door. Unannounced. Not wearing his hat or baggy suit, but tight-rolled jeans and a white t-shirt. The mustache is gone and his hair is short and tousled. 

We don't speak. He comes in. We tear off each other's clothes. We roll across the floor, we knock over furniture. My neighbor below shouts through the ceiling. 

We land in the bed. I'm out of breath, sweating. Fidelio gets up, he says, to use the bathroom.

The knife must have been in his pants pocket. My head was turned, I was looking out the window, thinking how wonderfully strange life is. Fidelio is more beautiful than I remembered, more sensual, yet also with more definition to his pecs and biceps.

The next thing I know he's on top, straddling me. A flick of his wrist snaps open the knife. The retort rebounds off my walls. A mysterious smile plays at the corners of his mouth. He knows exactly what his plans for me are, and I don't.

Fidelio raises the knife, not overhand like an attacker, but with the pearly handle between his thumb and two fingers, as if dangling a pendulum. A pendulum aimed straight at the center of my chest. A pendulum that is seven inches long and sharp. 

He raises his arm a little higher, increasing the distance and force with which the knife will fall, should it happen to slip from his fingers.

I freeze, my left arm caught under my back, the right still at my side. Rational observations pass like subtitles through my head while my stomach does loop-de-loops. The blade flares into a curve like a strong calf muscle, then tapers to an exquisite point. A string of puckers in Fidelio's skin runs like an archipelago above his navel—burn marks, some part of my mind says. Dragons are tattooed on his haunch, entangled and intertwined, fighting, or maybe fucking.

I count them in order to occupy my mind, but it's the knife my gaze returns to, the blade and point. Please, God, I think, whatever happens, don't let me lose control of my bowels.

I open my mouth and in an instant I see how it looks to him, the stupid O formed by my lips.

Then it comes to me. Don't look at the tip. Look into the eyes. The scalding eyes. The same ones with which his grandmother sears him.

I'm seeing him for the first time. Comprehending him. His weight on my hips. His white underwear. His buttonlike nipples, his smooth chest, the row of ribs neat like a trireme, the slender trail of black hairs running from his navel to disappear into the band of underwear. He's a young man with a life, a mind, a will. A sense of humor—I hope. 

No, I remind myself. The eyes. Black dots of infinity.

It's a challenge, the challenge of staring at death in the face of this golden-skinned boy with his plum cheeks and deft fingers. If I buck and grab for the knife, it just might slip. I flex my fingers. Fidelio is no longer a delightful, if confounding, character in my life. I'm about to be made into a minor character in his.

He remains uncannily still. The moment stretches. It's possible I'm still suspended in it. That the knife dropped and I now live in another universe. My existence was kernelled in that moment and still is.

"Fidelio," I say. My voice is clotted.

Amusement plays on his lips. He's pleased I spoke first. 

He leans in closer, his hand tightening around the handle. "How about a tickle?"

"Maybe not."

"Cut you loose then?"

His breath is warm on my face, it floods into my mouth. His arm is within reach now. I can try to grab his wrist, but I'm afraid a sudden move will trigger the wrong reaction.

He cocks his head. I say, "Have you seen your grandmother yet?"

His mouth uncoils in a smile. "I'm on my way to see her right now."

He places the knife on the bedside table, as if he's been using it to clean his nails. We go at it again. We loll in postcoital bliss until he makes a quick move to straddle me again. A sliver of fear shoots through my chest. Fidelio grabs the knife and flips it so that the handle is in my face.

“Take it.”

The handle is awkward in my hand, like when a limb is asleep and everything it touches seems unreal. 

Fidelio dismounts and flops beside me on his stomach. “What do you want to do to me?”

“Oh, I’ll think of something.”

All I want to do is fold the knife and order in some dinner.

“I’m waiting,” Fidelio says.

It’s theater, I think. Another test. 

I lower the knife toward his back, as if I’m going to carve him like a roast, except the blade is upside down: the spine, not the edge of the blade, will touch him. The light is fading. His skin is so smooth that, for a passing instant, I want to mark it with blood.

“What are you doing?” he demands as I’m about to give him a taste of metal.

“Just playing.”

“Playing,” he mutters into the pillow.

In a blur he rolls, grabs the knife from me and is astride me again, having turned me over onto my stomach in two moves.

I brace for it. Fidelio bends down to whisper into my ear, “Let’s play.” 

~ ~ ~

I waited for him to call that night. The next night. Nights after that. Finally I surrendered and called him. He was nonchalant. I asked if his grandmother had taught him how to beat the curse. He said, “Do you want to see me again or not?”

“I do.”

I wanted to prove to him I was willing to play and I could do better. When I was helpless on my stomach under him, he’d used the tip of the blade to tickle the hairs on my neck, then the curl of my ear, then the fold of my armpit. I couldn’t help it—I giggled. He jumped off me, snapped the knife shut, and two minutes later was out the door.

We went to dinner. Fidelio was distracted; he kept looking at the bar and other tables. He didn’t respond to questions about his grandmother. All he wanted to talk about was LA. His performance group was moving there. Maybe he could get acting work while they developed new pieces.

We went to my apartment. We had sex. It was perfunctory. No knife. No stories. He got up to dress. He shrugged on his shirt with a sigh, as if finishing a long day at work.

“Are you really moving to LA?” I said.

“I guess so.”

"Will you let me know how it goes?”

“Yeah, sure,” he mumbled. 

I was bursting. I wanted to pour out my soul. I wanted to tell him how that afternoon had changed my life. I rehearsed for next time what I’d say about how he’d transformed the way I approached theater, life, other people. Their unknowability. Character isn’t fate, it’s surprise, the puncturing of fate. Fate follows like a cat’s perturbed tail.

I wanted so badly for Fidelio to see that I got it. I understood that every date, every lover, every trick, no matter how casual, is incommensurable, a presence so powerful as to be hallucinatory.

Would he care? In a way, it didn’t matter. I wanted him to know how grateful I was. To know that whatever he was trying to do, it worked. Never again would I presume to capture a human being except in some dream, some sharded mirror, of the other. I used to feel that San Francisco was a city where people exposed themselves too much. Leave some mystery, please. Fidelio made me see I had it inside out. This is a city of secrets.

I vowed not to call. I’d wait him out. Once again, he proved the superior player. After three weeks, I dialed his number. It had been disconnected. I looked for him in theaters and on the streets of the Tenderloin. Nothing. He’d vanished like a wisp of smoke.

Ten months later I took a trip to Los Angeles. I was walking down Sunset Strip and saw a poster for a performance by Homo Sapient. That was the name of Fidelio’s group. I didn't recognize the faces in the poster. He may have been the girl with straight brown hair in a short white go-go dress.

At last, I thought, fate had brought us back together.

I noted the theater, I noted the starting time. I was scheduled to return to San Francisco the morning of the performance, but of course I’d change my ticket. In the meantime, I let fate choose if we’d run into each other at a café or club.

It didn’t. I saw friends, I saw plays, I went to museums, I went to clubs. Somehow I didn’t get around to calling the airline. I found myself driving my rental car to the airport on the morning my ticket said I must return. I’ll change it at the counter, I reasoned. But I didn’t. I went to the gate. Even as the agent called out the boarding rows, I envisioned myself turning in my ticket. Even once on the plane, settling into my seat, I told myself I could get off, stay another day.

And then it came to me: You can’t get off. Not once you’ve boarded. The cruel airline had forced me to miss Fidelio’s performance.

By the time we landed in San Francisco I knew the truth. Fidelio existed in another realm. I was afraid—afraid that the kernel of incommensurability would be popped. Afraid that if I saw him in the flesh, the spell would be broken. He was irreducible, but so was I. He had his needs and so did I. Fidelio was sealed away in amber already, a curio for my cabinet. He’d had me pegged from the start.

Prime Number Magazine
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PO Box 30314,
Winston-Salem NC 27130
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Issue 103, Jan – Mar 2017
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
J.L. Montavon

followed by Q&A

J.L. Montavon was born and raised in Denver and now lives in San Francisco. “Recursions,” his first published story, was chosen by Joan Wickersham as the winner of the 2016 Salamander Fiction Prize.

Contributor Note:
A few images and elements of this story, including the title, were drawn from the “Little Robber Girl” episode in H.C. Andersen's The Snow Queen. The initial idea came from the experience of a close friend of mine, though the story is entirely fictional.

The story was originally part of a novel I've just completed. One part of the novel involves Dana, the protagonist, and Steven (narrator of "The Tickle") telling each other stories about other people's relationships in order to understand their own. But Dana is clearly the novel's protagonist, so I decided Steven's story-within-the-story didn't fit.

1. If you could spend a day doing anything (besides writing), what would you do?
Walking. It’s always been the best way for me to think, meditate, or just get outside of myself. This feeling is augmented by one of my favorite books, Outside Lies Magic by John Stilgoe.

2. Where is your favorite place to write? 
In a chair on a deck. Writing seems to flow more when I’m able to get away from everyday life and spend a few days in a quiet place, especially if it’s warm enough to sit outside with my notebook or laptop.

3. You’ve been informed you will be reincarnated as an animal and you can choose, so what animal will you choose? 
My first instinct is to say a deer, because there’s something magical about locking eyes with a deer in the woods. But if I think about it more concretely, a hawk. It would be cool to soar.