"It's good to mix 'em up," Raoul says of the martial arts. He currently holds a brown belt in karate but hopes to have his black belt by fall. In the meantime he's taking tae kwon do to supplement his judo. He's also a semiprofessional downhill skier and a former investment banker who retired a multimillionaire last year at the age of 33. He is extremely handsome (a former model), articulate, and read "Ulysses" when he was 13 ("It really shaped me in many ways"). He is fluent in three languages, four if you count Mandarin, which he can only read. He tells me all of this while he plucks a slender, nearly transparent bone from his steamed Chilean sea bass.
I nod. "That's great," I say as I stab a leaf of kale and fork it into my mouth. It tastes nothing like the bacon cheeseburger that I wish I were having right now. A greasy bacon cheeseburger at home, on the sofa, in front of "The Sopranos."
I'm 30 minutes into my first date with Raoul and I am surprised by the intensity of my hatred for him. Truly, it is stunning.
"I don't watch TV," Raoul says, when I ask him if he likes "The Sopranos."
"Never?" I ask.
"Rarely. Sometimes a little PBS or CNN. I used to watch a couple of shows, but not anymore. Not since I stopped drinking."
I try and veil my glee by adopting a mask of compassion. "So you had ... a drinking problem?" I want to pound the table and cheer. I want neon signs to appear, huge arrows that point at him, flashing, FLAW, FLAW, FLAW. I like flaws and feel more comfortable around people who have them. I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.
"No, I didn't have a drinking problem. But you know," he says, and shakes his head, "who needs the extra carbs?" Raoul's teeth are so white they look plastic. But I am certain they are real and that he has never had a cavity, because no doubt he flosses four times a day.
And this is where I notice that all the breadsticks are gone. A trail of crumbs leads from the basket to my side of the table. When Raoul takes a sip of mineral water, closing his eyes, I quickly brush the crumbs off my shirt.
"CNN had a thing about carbs the other night," he says. "You see it?"
I never watch CNN. I hate news and information and anything that threatens to puncture the bubble of oblivion in which I live.
"No," I say. "I missed that. But I agree, carbs are just awful. I usually don't eat them. Except, you know, when I eat out in restaurants."
Raoul smiles. "I thought you said you always eat out in restaurants, that you never cook?"
"Well," I attempt, "I meant restaurants with tablecloths."
I have been on a spree of answering personal ads lately and Raoul is the 10th date I've had this month. I believe in the concept of personal ads because you get to meet the interior of a person first. As opposed to meeting somebody while standing in line at a movie, falling for them because their looks make you swoon and only discovering much later, after hundreds of dating dollars, that you find their insides as appealing as Alpo. At least theoretically. In practice though, I'm not sure there's much of a difference. After all, I answered Raoul's personal ad entirely on the basis of his picture, which was incredible. I only skimmed the content of the ad, skipping over words I didn't like ("spiritual," "motivated," and especially "experiential"). Instead I downloaded his photo, enlarged it in Photoshop to scrutinize it and then replied with a brief, witty note and a picture of me standing in a field, shirtless.
"The soup is really good," I say.
"It's a little salty," he answers.
I immediately agree. "It's good in a salty way. My body must crave salt for some reason. Maybe I didn't drink enough at the gym and I'm dehydrated." Why am I doing this? Why am I shape-shifting in front of this man? And the answer is, of course, because he is handsome and perfect and I feel I am neither.
Raoul takes a large sip of water. "So tell me about you," he says, smiling.
"Well, I'm in advertising. Like Darren Stevens on Bewitched." I have used this line hundreds of times and sometimes people smile.
He doesn't smile.
I nod and go on. "So that's what I do for work. For fun, I really like going to movies. I see pretty much everything."
Aces align in his eyes. "I love movies," he says. Finally. Something in common.
"Yeah? What's your favorite?"
"American Beauty," he says, not having to think. "I saw it 10 times. It's the most incredible movie about Buddhism I've ever seen."
I can't stand spiritual gay men. They annoy me more than flavored coffees. A spiritual gay man simply means he has a yin-yang tattoo on his ass, which you can be sure is all muscle. "So you're a Buddhist?" I ask.
"Put it this way," he says, "I'm very interested to know as much as I can and experience as much of the moment as possible." The candle between us flickers when I cough. "What about you? What movie did you really like recently?"
Suddenly my mind goes white and I cannot remember seeing any movie, ever. This happens to me. Somebody asks me a simple question and my petulant child of a mind turns away and faces the wall. "I liked 'Deliverance.' The pig scene was great."
After dinner Raoul shocks me by asking me out again. "We could take a walk in the woods up in Inwood. It's really beautiful, more untouched than Central Park. And it would be really nice to be together in nature."
Because I am so surprised by his invitation, as I'd assumed that Raoul didn't like me either, I say, "Ok." Even though I am not at all fond of nature. After all, where do most manhunts for escaped serial killers begin? Exactly, in the woods. After I agree, I ask myself why. And all I can think is I am doing what my friend John once told me, to dismiss the first date, write it off. You have to give somebody two or three dates before you can really know.
I tell myself how good this is that I am making an effort, giving Raoul a fair shot, not being so judgmental.
The following Sunday I meet Raoul at Inwood Hill Park, at the northern tip of Manhattan. I have never been above 73rd Street, so this is something of an adventure and I am carrying $200 in cash in case of an emergency. When I see Raoul sitting on a bench, I smile automatically. He is wearing shorts and a loose T-shirt, and appears very casual and sexy, yet at the same time very wholesome and down-to-earth. I suddenly feel crazy and judgmental. Not to mention shallow.
"It's great to see you, Augusten," he says, extending his hand.
We shake and then Raoul pulls me close in a hug. "And you feel great," he tells me. "Man, you must work out all the time, you're just all muscle."
I am deeply flattered by this, much more flattered than I should be. My feeling is, now, I will follow him anywhere.
As we walk, Raoul tells me a little more about himself. He feels that life is an adventure and that if you want something, you just have to go out there and get it. "I wanted to have enough money to retire at 33, and that's what I did," he says. "I'm living proof that you can't fail if you have a plan. You only fail if you don't have a plan." As we walk past bushes, Raoul extends his hand to touch the leaves, often identifying them by their Latin names. He wants to know if I am where I want to be in my life. "Are you on course?" he asks.
I can't help feeling that if he were standing now in front of a jury of my friends and acquaintances, they would all whisper and scribble the word "odious" on their legal pads.
Finally we reach a small clearing. Here, in the middle of the woods is green grass, a pool of sunlight, and an old log overturned and perfect to sit on. Raoul walks over to a large ancient Oak tree and places the palms of his hands on the trunk. Then he leans forward slowly and kisses the bark. "This is Beth," he says. "She's my favorite tree."
OK, I officially despise Raoul now, so I reach into the flap pocket of my cargo shorts and pull out a box of Marlboro Lights. I light a cigarette and blow a plume of smoke into the air. "Nice to meet you, Beth."
Raoul is horrified. "You smoke?" he asks, with utter disgust.
"I'm trying to quit."
"Well, you either smoke or you don't. You don't 'try' to quit, you either do or you don't."
"OK," I say, "You're right. I'm thinking about quitting but haven't really tried, so yes. I smoke."
"Well, I wish you wouldn't smoke here in the woods," he says.
I remove the cigarette from between my lips, toss it on the grass and mash it into the earth with the tip of my hiking boot. "OK," I say.
The corners of Raoul's mouth curl into a frown of distaste. "Let's head back," he says.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Somehow we end up in bed. It seems clear that we have nothing in common, but Raoul invites me up to his apartment -- a two-bedroom on Central Park West -- and I accept because his muscular calves seem to have a curious power over me. Once upstairs, he tells me again how sexy I am.
I am shamed that I am so easily swayed by this compliment. All my life I have felt bad about my skinny body. So I have worked out for years and have grown much larger and stronger and although my own mirror still reflects back to me the image of a skinny kid, other people see somebody else entirely and sometimes want to sleep with him.
Raoul takes his shirt off and his chest, muscular, hairy, masculine, engages my interest. And within 10 minutes we are undressed and in bed.
It turns out Raoul has a condition known as micropenis. This means his penis is less than 4 inches long, fully erect. It looks like a large clitoris, sticking out above two balls.
"Suck my big, fat cock," he tells me. "You like that big dick?"
I am dizzy. I am literally dizzy. I was so shocked to encounter the micropenis and now am even more shocked to encounter his apparent lack of knowledge about the micropenis. I grip it in my hand and it's lost, so I use my thumb and index finger to jerk it.
"Yeah," he says. "Yeah, Man, stroke that long, hard cock. Work it."
I am now engaged in what I consider volunteer work. I am jerking him off purely out of pity. This is really no different from donating 5 percent of my paycheck to the United Way every month and it occurs to me that maybe now I don't need to give to the United Way and instead can keep the cash for myself for dating, which I am obviously going to have to do quite a bit more of.
When he comes, it dribbles out the end and pools in the palm of my hand. "I need to wash up," I say.
Raoul is distant, cool. "Go ahead," he says, standing and slipping into a pair of briefs. Then he says, "Thanks."
"No problem," I say, drying my hands on his expensive towel. "But I should be going."
"Yeah," Raoul says. "That's cool. I really enjoyed meeting you, Augusten. But, you know. The smoking thing, that's sort of a deal breaker for me."
Later at home, I wonder if dating in, say, Dayton, is different. Out there, maybe you have a pool of 50 guys from which to choose. So maybe you pick the guy with whom you have the most in common and you just iron it all out as you go along. But here in Manhattan, if a guy has last year's sideburn length, forget it. If you can't check off every quality you listed in your delusional personal ad, next. There's always another guy.
Am I any better? If Raoul had been OK with my smoking, would I have been OK with his mini-dick? After all, he was handsome, smart, successful. Maybe if I got to know him, I'd actually find that I liked him.
The funny thing is, if he'd come right out and told me on the first date that he had a dick the size of a pencil eraser, if he'd made a joke about it ("But I'm so perfect in every other way") maybe I would have liked him. As it was, he not only didn't admit his flaw, he was entirely oblivious to it. So although Raoul was far from perfect, he seemed to think he was quite close.
And for me, that's a deal breaker.