The love letters awaited me in the thin aluminum box of apartment #2 at the Idalia, a brick, pre-WWII apartment building spangled with ivy. I’d ridden the city bus home from my university. The Ninja woman was on my bus that day. My ex-boyfriend called her that because she wore black windbreakers with black sweatpants and because, supposedly, she never made a sound. I assumed she was homeless because she reeked of urine.
The edges of the envelope were marked with red and blue triangles, like used-car lot bunting. On the front, black fountain pen looped in Palmer-method cursive. I took it to my living room where, through the age-bubbled windows, I heard the heavy traffic on Dodge Street, the central artery through Omaha. In 2003 the letter seemed unreal, a prop out of someone else’s life movie, but then so did its sender. He was an old crush, a soldier in Iraq who’d looked me up a month before when he was on leave.
I’d met him three years before when we had both waited tables at Chili’s, where I fantasized about him in vain, for he was engaged. After I moved on to a better restaurant, we fell out of touch. Two years later, in early January, he called me out of the blue to say he was on leave and wanted to see me. When Joshua arrived at my apartment later that afternoon, the first thing he said was, “Oh my god, look at you!”
“You’re gorgeous. I didn’t expect you to look this hot.”
Since he’d last seen me I’d gone from a size 16 to an 8. I’d stopped eating meat and had been subsisting on diet Coke, Power Bars, and cigarettes.
Apart from his close-cropped hair and a deep desert tan, Joshua looked unchanged, so it wasn’t hard to remember why I’d been so attracted to him a few years earlier. His deep brown eyes conveyed both sincerity and shyness. He smiled with his whole face. Dimples dented his cheeks, one next to a small mole that I had an impulse to kiss.
We spent that afternoon sitting on my ugly green-velvet couch, drinking Bud Light and smoking Marlboros. He said war was boring and terrifying at the same time. He told me about his fiancé, Mandy, “Dear John-ing” him.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about you when I was over there,” Joshua said. “That’s why I had to find you. I can’t believe how lucky I am you’re single.” Twenty-two years old, insecure, and recently dumped, I found Joshua’s confession flattering.
Joshua’s letters from Iraq were usually only a page or two, and they alternated between small talk and bedroom talk. Even before I broke the seal of this latest envelope, I smelled the cologne he had doused the letter in. The stationery crackled, but instead of the usual blue onion-skin, I felt something smooth and glossy—a folded sheet of slick magazine paper.
I unfolded the magazine page and saw, in full-color, a naked woman squatting on the edge of a galvanized sink. She gazed into the camera with a look of defiance, mouth parted so her lolling pink tongue showed. Her open, ravenous mouth made her look as if she couldn’t wait to lick or suck the next thing those eyes met. Her gaze, made up of silver eye shadow and thick kohl rimmed eyes, seemed threatening. The aggression, which I couldn’t imagine displaying in the bedroom, embarrassed me. Her pubic hair didn’t exist. With one hand she balanced herself on the sink counter. The first two fingers of the other splayed her labia wide as she aimed a golden arch of urine into the metal sink.
This wasn’t the first time I’d seen pornography. About a year before this, my older brother and I got drunk together, and he handed me one of his skin magazines. “Have you ever seen porn before?” I shook my head. “You need to see this so that you know what guys get off on,” he said with his typical big-brother condescension. Not wanting him to think me naïve, I flipped open the Hustler he’d handed me. I had never seen a woman’s naked body like that before: oiled down until the skin looked plastic, boob jobs so fake they reminded me of a cartoon—perfect spheres like beach balls. How unreal. How unnatural. The longer I looked, the more the photographs struck me as absurd rather than obscene. One woman donned a pink negligee with feather trim that looked like one of Jim Henson’s Muppets. I tried to imagine a man being seduced by such a getup. This is what men want in the bedroom? This is sexy? I couldn’t imagine my brother or anyone getting off on such images, yet wasn’t that what these magazines were for?
As I held the photo of the woman peeing, many thoughts raced through my mind: This is a thing? Did Joshua masturbate to this? Does he want me to pee on him?
I folded the magazine page, slipped it back in the envelope, and put it in the shoebox in the closet with the other letters. For the rest of that day I thought about it, as I drove to work, as I polished silverware and folded napkins, and as I bussed and reset tables. The more I thought about it, the more it revolted me.
I thought about other urinous encounters in my life—always with the very young, the very old, or the homeless: the least sexy people in the world. There was Bradley, the potty-training three year old I babysat for a summer when I was a teenager. Bradley woke up drenched in pee-soaked sheets. I stripped the bed, balling up the dry parts of the sheets around the sodden spots so as not to touch them. By the end of the summer, after many hot water washes, his Thomas the Tank Engine sheets had faded to gray.
That wasn’t so bad compared to Grandpa Harvey. He dribbled and had poor aim, so his bathroom reeked of ammonia-laced urine. On visits to Grandma and Grandpa’s, I held my pee until it felt like my bladder would explode to avoid using that bathroom. Grandma decorated it—rather appropriately (but certainly unintentionally)—in yellowish-gold colors. The height of 70s fashion, the plush carpet was a thick ochre. The wallpaper was dark amber with gold flecks. The rank smell saturated that rug. The sticky, padded toilet seat compounded my disgust. On those rare brave times when I actually sat on that seat, it wheezed out a thin fart of plastic air. Mostly I hovered over the toilet, feet wide apart, trying not to step on the urine soaked carpeting. My peeing stance wasn’t unlike Joshua’s porn girl. My facial expression, however, was probably more like those of the white-plastic fish hanging on the facing wall. Nose wrinkled and lips puckered.
My disgust with urine wasn’t unique. In 1872 in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin noted that disgust is a universal emotion, experienced by all people regardless of culture. All human beings recoil from the disgusting with the same expression: lips puckered into a sneer, nose wrinkled and eyes narrowed to a squint—a literal retracting of nose and eyes and mouth from that deemed revolting. But the displeasure goes further. It isn’t just the physically revolting that causes such a grimace—things like the smell of putrefaction that arouse our fear of contamination—but those associated with such smells who become stigmatized.
Case in point: the Ninja woman. I encountered her often on the number 5 bus from my apartment to campus. She looked like she was in her late sixties, with greasy, gray hair pulled back in a tangled ponytail, wrinkles etched over gaunt sunken cheeks, frail shoulders hunched. When she got on the bus, I tried not to make eye contact, hoping she wouldn’t sit near me because her rank odor made me gag.
She was Midtown Omaha’s urban legend. One friend at my favorite coffee shop believed she roamed the streets in grief because her husband had been murdered. Another friend, Brandon, painted a series of portraits for a show at the same coffee shop. Among his paintings was a triptych. The left panel was a portrait of the Ninja woman, dressed in widow’s black, her oil-rendered face looking especially desiccated. The right panel was a portrait of his girlfriend in her underwear, her wrists bound in black leather. Flanked by these subjects—one overtly erotic, the other as overtly unsexy, against a similar background of chalky pastel—was a self-portrait of the artist in full-frontal nudity. There were other paintings on display, but the only one he sold looked like porn, which he’d titled “Girlfriend Bondage.”
That afternoon back in January, Joshua smelled like aftershave and leather. That’s when I knew I had to have sex with him. In a few days he’d be deployed back to Iraq, to a desert convoy where at any moment an IED could explode. Though we didn’t say it, we knew this might be our only chance to act on our mutual attraction. It’s so simple, I thought, to give him this. I’d show this soldier a good time. It was my patriotic duty.
The next day, after dinner and drinks, we made out on the couch. I slipped my finger under his waistband and was going for his zipper when he stopped me. In the softest whisper he said, “I have to tell you something.” He could barely choke out the word “uncircumcised.” Foreskin was new to me. I was grateful for the disclosure. How charming, his bashfulness.
Before he went back to Iraq, we had sex a handful of times. Our romps in the bedroom weren’t earth-shattering. He was surprisingly inexperienced. I was only his third lover. We’ll get better with practice. Only there wasn’t time to practice.
After he was gone, every three or four days, he’d manage a phone call. His phone calls woke me at 5:00 a.m. because of the time difference. Once, he asked me to masturbate for him. I had to fake it. Without being able to see him, I couldn’t muster up enough desire. The next time we talked, I expected he’d ask me what I thought about the porn magazine clipping. Maybe he’d use it as a way to talk about his fantasies, to describe what he wanted to do when he came home. He never mentioned it, and I was too afraid to bring it up myself.
He talked about other pictures, the ones of me he’d asked for and just gotten in the mail. Even though I had the vague notion he’d masturbate to the images of me, I didn’t send pinups. If I had been braver, more comfortable with my sexuality, or in possession of a digital camera, maybe I would I have sent him something risqué. He told me I looked sexy and beautiful, even though I was fully clothed. He said he couldn’t wait to be with me again. I thought about “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien. During the Vietnam War, the protagonist, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, carried pictures and letters from a girl back home. It was a one-sided love affair. She never returned his affections. When I first read the story, Martha’s prudishness angered me. It surprised me that in the face of war, Jimmy’s deepest act of cowardice was failing to put a move on Martha. Recalling a date that ended with a reserved goodnight kiss, he tells us, “Right then, I should’ve done something brave. I should’ve carried her up the stairs to her room and tied her to the bed….I should have risked it.”
Between correspondences I scoured the newspaper for war coverage and monitored the death tally. I thought about the video Joshua had sent me. He faces the camera, narrating the site near their camp where his unit engaged in live combat the night before, the place where he could have been shot and killed. I imagined him riding through the desert, perched on a Humvee with a rifle. Maybe he carried my picture in his helmet, like Lt. Cross had in Vietnam.
I thought about sex, too. The photo of the pissing woman brought up other times I’d felt sexual disgust. I remembered my first French kiss, the shock of my boyfriend’s slimy tongue, the musky smell of his saliva. I read Freud, who believed desire couldn’t exist without disgust. Any sexually intimate contact is rife with it. Overcoming this disgust is often what gives sex its thrill.
In The Anatomy of Disgust, William Ian Miller concludes that “consensual sex means the mutual transgression of disgust-defended boundaries.” We are disgusted enough by another person’s body and its attendant smells and fluids that even as we lick, suck, and penetrate, the thrill of the illicit remains incredibly powerful. In this set up, lovers become permission givers and transgressors. Miller argues the more stimulating role to play is that of permission giver because authorizing transgression suspends the disgust rule first (and is therefore the more blatant violation of purity and decency). If Miller is right, it is sexier to let yourself be peed on than to do the peeing.
The picture Joshua sent was presumably sexy because it let the viewer imagine himself as permission giver. At its deepest level, sexual intimacy occurs when both partners mutually play transgressor and permission granter. That way, according to Miller, “Both partners get the same disgust-related thrills and offend the gods of purity equally—a pure feast of misrule.”
If a boundary is crossed without permission, coerced, or if that taboo is breached by a stranger in passing, it provokes disgust. Those that are too young, mentally impaired, or unstable are not in a position to grant consent; therefore, the people that I associated with urine weren’t sexy. Any transgression of their boundaries would be pedophilia or rape.
In February, Joshua’s deployment ended. The thought made me queasy. I couldn’t tell if the butterflies in my stomach were the result of horny anticipation or anxiety over what he might expect of me. He’d been living in Denver before his deployment but was relocating to Omaha after his two-weeks of debriefing in Colorado so he could be with me. When he arrived stateside, I drove seven hours from Omaha to meet him in Denver. We spent the weekend in a hotel. I’d bought some sexy lingerie, a lacy burgundy set. I’d even convinced myself that if we did it in the shower maybe peeing might not be that bad.
* * *
I parked my Geo Metro alongside the barracks, a cinderblock building painted seafoam green. Joshua was out front waiting for me, still clad in fatigues. He met me at my car and hugged me. When he smiled, I felt weak, incapable of saying “no.” That feeling was fleeting, since after loading his duffle bag into my hatchback, he ran back inside, returning with a dozen hideous roses. The cotton-candy pink buds vied for attention with a tangle of baby’s breath in a plastic vase. I knew I should be grateful at Joshua’s attempt at romance. Coming up with a dozen fresh roses on an Army base in Colorado in the dead of winter couldn’t have been easy. Yet it felt tawdry. I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that the roses were intended as payment for sexual favors. They made me think of my dead grandmother and the roses at her funeral.
After checking into the hotel we went to dinner at a pho restaurant in a nearby strip mall. Back in our room, I undressed, revealing my lingerie. Joshua loved it. That was the highlight of my evening; the lovemaking that followed disappointed. Joshua was slow, cautious, and favored the missionary position. As I lay under his monotonous thrusts, my dread of being forced into something kinky was replaced by boredom. Hoping to get it over with, I faked an orgasm.
We woke at 4:30 the next morning. I drove Joshua back to base for his drills, and then returned to the hotel to catch a few more hours of sleep. At seven I woke feeling disoriented. My stomach was raw with anxiety. Maybe being with Joshua was a terrible mistake. At the continental breakfast, I choked down half of a bland bagel. I saw no other choice but to finish out the weekend until I figured out what to do. After what he’d been through in Iraq, I didn’t want to hurt him. He’d already put a deposit down for an apartment in Omaha. I knew it’d take him time to readjust to civilian life, so I should be patient. Joshua was a nice guy and clearly adored me. Still I couldn’t shake the feeling that our sexual chemistry would remain stagnant no matter how much we practiced. I’d spent so much time worrying about what was expected of me sexually, I’d forgotten I could have expectations of my own.
By the last day at the hotel, the roses had browned. The water in the vase smelled swampish. Desiccated petals littered the desk. The flower heads hung limp as if bored and exhausted. I wondered if Joshua was just too shy to tell me what he really wanted. I wanted to ask about the letters, but I felt too embarrassed, so instead I suggested we take a shower together. He didn’t take the hint. As he chastely soaped my back, I realized some part of me wanted to feel violated, had come to yearn for it. I wanted Joshua to cross some line. To risk it. It would turn me on. But he didn’t. We soaped and rinsed. Still, I had a glimmer of hope that Joshua and I would somehow connect physically.
Two weeks later, Joshua arrived in Omaha. He sat in my apartment eating a slice of apple pie he had asked me to bake for him. He mentioned the letters for the first time.
“Did you like them?” he asked.
“Well, I was a bit surprised by, you know, the picture.”
“What picture? What are you talking about?”
He said he didn’t know what I was talking about. I went to the hall closet where I had stuffed the shoebox of his letters. He was shocked when I pulled out the picture.
“The guys in my unit must have pranked me.” Red-faced, he shoved the picture back in its envelope.
“Do you think that’s sexy?” I asked, curious, but cautious.
“So you wouldn’t ever want to try something like that?”
“No. I don’t want to talk about it.”
I looked down at the pie on the table between us. Now I was actually disappointed that he hadn’t been the one sending me pornography. I wanted a deeper, more disgusting connection with him, but we couldn’t transgress past that boundary. There was nothing unruly about our fucking. I’d tell Joshua we were through, but first, I sought the comfort of a long, hot shower.
In the shower, I started masturbating, and as soon as a came, I started crying. I realized that sexual passion was more important to me in a relationship than I had thought. I wasn’t going to settle for bland sex. I’d believed Joshua’s handsomeness and chivalrous nature was sexy, but it wasn’t. I wanted to have sex with someone imaginative in bed. We weren’t going to solve this problem by just trying harder. It wasn’t something I could force.
As I lathered my skin I played the scene in my head: Joshua sitting on the green couch as I told him we were over. The crushed look on his face. An angry door slam on his way out. I lingered in the shower long enough that I needed to pee. I released a scentless stream on the white porcelain between my feet. It was as pale as the water it mixed with and quickly washed down the drain.
As I stepped out of the shower and toweled dry, I smelled of peppermint castile soap. And my skin, flushed pink from steam and scrubbing, felt scalded, purified.
Sarah K. Lenz has had nonfiction published in New Letters, Colorado Review, South Dakota Review, The Fourth River and elsewhere. Twice her work has been named notable in Best American Essays.