August 12 2022
by Micky Peters
Sometimes, when the shutter was down, when the lights were off and everyone else had gone home, I would come out from behind the reception desk, go and sit in the dentist’s chair, and get high. The chair’s recline function was useful for this purpose – I would use the controls to tilt myself back, then smoke a bowl from the pipe I kept hidden in my bottom drawer, beneath my headshots. There was a television screen mounted on the ceiling, so that patients could look at dreamy footage of a coral reef while they were having their cavities drilled or molars torn out, and I often hooked my phone up to the screen and used it to watch old episodes of Friends, true crime documentaries, or gay pornography. Anything that relaxed me. Sometimes I fell asleep in the chair and would wake up at midnight, cotton mouthed, and then I’d gather up my things and use the staff exit and freight lift to get out of the shopping centre where the clinic was inexplicably situated. I’d normally drink half a protein shake when I got home, abandoning the remainder to be chugged the next morning, warm, on the way back to work. Every day was the same, always the same, the tedious hours of diarising appointments and taking phone calls, listening to people whine about their bleeding gums in a way that made me want to fall asleep.
In the whole time I’d worked at the clinic, I’d never received an email that was not marked as URGENT. A wobbly incisor was URGENT, an ill-fitting denture was URGENT. Even a request for a routine check-up was URGENT. Whenever someone requested a Read Receipt, I would automatically delete their email, and then erase it from the recycle bin as well so there was no evidence of my crime. I had faith that, if the pain was truly unbearable, the patients would eventually walk in, chompers like baked beans, blubbing in agony and begging to be seen. Then I’d feel like their Lord and Saviour as I booked them in, distributing timeslots to the sick and needy, bathed in the divine white light of the waiting room.
The other receptionist was an elderly woman called Eileen, who was dismal at her job and couldn’t get the hang of the filing system. I wished she would just give up and retire. Sometimes she would appall me by gargling mouthwash at her desk, and once I walked into the staff kitchen to find her on all fours in a ropy Downward Facing Dog. She often talked to me about her grandson – who attended stage school – going on and on in a never-ending paean to his artistic gifts. When she showed me pictures of the boy – promotional shots from the student production of Guys and Dolls – he was a bottle blond, milk faced piglet with scrunched up features, a smudge of dust-coloured hair crawling across his top lip like a caterpillar.
‘How lovely,’ I said, scrolling through them, although inside I was thinking the boy was far too ugly to ever be famous.
‘He’s going to be a star one day,’ said Eileen. ‘A big star in Hollywood.’
‘Well,’ I said. ‘Let’s not lose our heads, Eileen. It’s a tough industry, you know.’
‘Oh, of course,’ said Eileen, touching my arm. ‘I always forget – you want to be an actor as well.’
‘I am an actor,’ I said.
Eileen winced. ‘Sorry, that’s what I meant.’
‘That’s quite alright, Eileen.’
People often told me I looked like a young Bryan Ferry, but I’d also gotten Al Pacino and John Stamos on my good days. I kept a little mirror in my pocket at all times and went on regular toilet breaks to make sure my hair was still in place. Once, a man on Grindr offered to take nude photographs of me for free, but he also wanted me to ejaculate on a cupcake and let him eat it, so I said no. Still, I was flattered by his compliment. It must be hard to know you’re old and undesirable, I thought one night, in the dentist’s chair. Self-loathing can make people do the strangest things.
Sometimes I looked in The Stage for open call auditions. Sometimes I filmed myself doing ordinary things and watched it back afterward to see if I was acting naturally or not. On the nights I didn’t get high, I practiced singing scales in my bedroom and rehearsed my songs. I thought my version of Finishing the Hat was good. I did two hundred push-ups a day, two hundred sit-ups, and two hundred squats. People always talk about needing to go to the gym but that’s all you need to do really. If you want to be fit, the rest is a load of crap.
My flatmate, Kim, was an air hostess, but whenever I referred to her as such, she always corrected me. ‘Cabin crew,’ she said. ‘That’s the industry term.’ She was away a lot of the time because of her job, which was nice for me because whenever she was gone I’d use the full length mirror in her room to look at myself naked. When she was back, she’d tell me stories of all the places she’d been, although they were always crashingly boring and I didn’t care. She had this fool of a boyfriend called Kyle or Rhys or Jake or something; the kind of man who keeps his beefy arms protectively wrapped around his girlfriend whenever she drags him out to a nightclub, as though he might need to fight off a rival male at any moment. One time the two of them went to a funfair together and when they got back Kim was carrying a large white teddy bear with “I WUV U” embroidered on its chest, which Kyle or Rhys or Jake had won for her at the ring toss, and when I saw it, I had to stop myself from laughing in their faces. I went into my bedroom, masturbated onto a cookie, and sent a picture of it to the saddo photographer guy on Grindr, if only to prove to myself that I’d never be basic like Kim and her boyfriend. Yum, he messaged back.
I sat in the food court at lunch the next day, people watching, trying to memorise their mannerisms in case I ever needed to replicate their behaviour for an acting role. I noticed that practically everyone had some sort of food hang-up: the self-starvers, the bingers, the purgers, the finicky, the finger-lickin’. Some people ate only one thing, like the guy in the Superdrug uniform who seemed to consume exclusively meat. Others ate everything at the same time, piling their buffet plates high with chicken legs, pizza slices, cream cakes, salad leaves, dollops of ketchup and mayonnaise. Of course, I myself was not immune to such nutritional neuroses – I’d been chubby as a teenager, had eaten too many sugary things. I had been awkward, unpopular, bad at sports. My parents had put me on a diet and threatened me with fat camp. It was ironic, really, that I worked at the dental clinic, because my real teeth were decayed from years of Haribo; black and withered, the only ugly thing about me. The ones I had in my mouth were all fake – fillings at the back, crowns at the front. It was a triumph of engineering, up there with the other great bridges of the world: Golden Gate, Sydney Harbour, the Ponte Vecchio. When I ran my tongue along them, I thought I heard angels call my name. I was sure that my perfect fake smile was the main reason I’d been hired for the front desk. It made people feel good, I thought, to see what they would never have.
When I got back to work, Eileen was on the phone to someone. She kept shaking her head and saying, “I’m sorry, but it’s not possible.” I looked at my calendar – it was empty. This was a relief – I always tried to keep as much free time available as I could, in case I got an audition. It had been over a year since I’d had any kind of social engagement. Sometimes, people from my past would send me emails or texts, try to invite me out to birthday parties and such. On rare occasions, my parents called me to report that some old relative I allegedly knew had snuffed it, and I was expected at the funeral. I never went – black isn’t my colour – and after a while, I started sending their calls straight to voicemail.
The dentist was working late that night, so I couldn’t smoke in the chair. I went home instead, where I found Kim and her boyfriend in the kitchen, making Mexican food. Kyle or Rhys or Jake kept pronouncing the word “fajitas” with a hard J – Fah Jee Terz – which made me smirk. I drank a protein shake, went into my bedroom, did my push-ups, and worked on my accents. I did this by reading aloud from detective novels while pacing around the room in my underwear. I made a voice recording on my phone, and then listened back to it afterwards to check my pronunciation. Using this method, I had mastered RP, London, Irish (Belfast), Scottish (Glasgow), Australian, American (Southern), and American (New York). Later, I heard Kim and her boyfriend having sex, the squeak of her bed moving back and forth, slowly at first, but with increasing rhythmic intensity until at last Kyle or Rhys or Jake made a muffled mewling noise and everything went quiet. I lay down, smoked a spliff, and looked at porn. I hated amateur shit; the videos I liked best were the ones with characters and plot lines: Prison cellmates fuck after yard exercises. Boss ties up janitor and cums in his hole. Student asks professor to raise grade by sucking him under the desk. I didn’t masturbate, it wasn’t always necessary. Sometimes, all I wanted was to see people enjoying themselves, even though I realised the guys in the films were just paid to act that way. They probably weren’t having fun at all. At drama school, they had taught us to use experiences from our own lives to give emotional authenticity to our performances. I wondered what pleasures the pornstars recalled when they moaned orgasmically, what rhapsodies of joy they relived. I had never experienced anything that intensely. Sometimes, it seemed as though nothing truly good nor bad had ever happened to me; that my whole life had been in shades of beige. My spliff burned down. I got high, but felt nothing.
Aside from an annoying five minutes where she hummed along to Careless Whisper on the radio, Eileen was relatively subdued the next day. Perhaps she’d worked out I found her insufferable. Perhaps her years were finally catching up with her. I deleted emails and left telephone callers on hold until they gave up, only booking in appointments to the walk-ins, truly desperate and practically frothing at the mouth. Time passed. In the afternoon, I received a message on Grindr. It was from the photographer. Cum fill me, is all it said. Then another message came through, a drop pin of his location. Apparently, he was less than three hundred metres away.
Can’t, I replied. I’m stuck at work.
Shame, he said. After?
Maybe, I said, while thinking: no. He replied with a blurry picture, which on closer inspection turned out to be a photograph of his anus. I switched my phone off.
The day wore on. Eileen dropped a fizzy tablet into a glass of water and drank the resulting orange concoction. I clenched my buttocks a thousand times in my swivel chair to tighten them. I thought about getting high; the pipe in my drawer called to me. After Eileen left, I half closed the shutter and sat at the desk, tidying bits of paper pointlessly, but once again the dentist decided to work late, so I gave up and left. Outside, it was dark, and a thin fog was wrapping itself around the town. I stood at the bus stop and thought about Kim. I hoped she would be on a flight somewhere when I got home, so I could have the flat to myself. I didn’t feel like sharing the space with her and her moronic boyfriend, listening to them bonk uncreatively in the next room. I hoped her plane would crash into the sea, and I wouldn’t have to bother with her any more. With any luck, Kyle or Rhys or Jake would die also, of grief.
Hey, my phone buzzed. Hope it’s cool, but me and the boyf are having some mates over tonight. We’re going to watch this crazy Japanese horror called Onibaba – eek! You’re welcome to join xx
It was Kim. Of course it was Kim. I put my phone back in my pocket without replying, then took it back out. I opened Grindr. Are you around? I asked the photographer. I didn’t feel much like having sex, but anything was better than Oni-fucking-baba with Kim and co.
Hey, came the reply, after a moment.
Are you around? I asked again.
Three dots appeared in a row. Hungry4hung is typing, said words at the top of the screen. Then the words disappeared, along with the dots. Then they appeared once more. At long last, the awaited response came through: yeah.
Cool, I replied. I suddenly couldn’t be bothered to articulate any sort of desire. Instead, I scrolled through his pictures and waited. He wasn’t even attractive, or at least, not nearly as attractive as me. It wouldn’t do, to seem like I was pursuing him. But to acquiesce to his advances…
Wanna come over? he said.
I decided to wait a while before responding, to make it clear that I didn’t care. A bus arrived, opened its doors, closed them, and drove off again. Yeah, I said. Sounds good.
Mmm, he said. He sent me a drop pin of his location, as he had before. Come.
Okay, I replied. Coming now.
See you in a bit.
I didn’t usually have casual sex like this. I felt that having had a large number of partners would be regrettable after I got famous, as any one of them might sell their story to the press and make up lies about me enjoying weird things. Most of the guys I’d done it with had been strangers I’d met in nightclubs, people who wouldn’t remember me the next day. I already had a rehearsed response for when the gossip sites inevitably discovered my sexuality: It’s my private life, I would say. If you really want to know what I’m getting up to in the bedroom, the answer is: eight hours of sleep a night, meditation in the morning, and a good book in the evening. I felt that it was just the right level of coquettish to endear me to the public.
It occurred to me, as I walked across town to the photographer’s flat, that he might be a rapist, or a murderer. He might drug me and tie me to the bed and torture me. But it didn’t seem to be a real sort of fear. It was merely a clinical acknowledgment of an unfortunate possibility, the sort of thing a military commander might feel when they realise a drone strike will potentially result in the deaths of innocent people. My feet just kept on moving forward, and eventually, I was outside his building.
I’m here. What number?
It was the kind of post-war block with concrete walkways running all around the outside. I went up to the first floor and found the flat, which had a yellow door and a potted geranium outside. When I lifted up the plant pot, there was a key underneath. Some people are so fucking dumb, I thought. I put the pot back down and rang the bell.
There was a long pause before I heard movement coming from inside, which, if I had been the type of person that found things suspicious, I might have found suspicious. Instead, I just found it annoying. Then the door opened, and the ratty little man I was due to have sex with peered up at me.
‘Hey,’ he said, in a quiet voice, like he was scared of something. ‘Come in.’ He opened the door wider, I went inside, and he shut it behind me. He was wearing a too-small black t-shirt on his top half, and he was naked from the waist down except for a jockstrap that was covered in stains. He didn’t have the bum for it; the loose skin of his backside rippled and hung down over the elastic. He had thin hair, and bad teeth, and psoriasis on his arms. I felt such a fundamental lack of attraction towards him that I think my penis actually got sucked back up inside me. Still, I was there now, and I couldn’t be bothered to cause a scene, to storm out in disgust. I had learned over the years that even the affection of someone contemptible is better than nothing at all.
‘Thanks for inviting me,’ I said.
‘Wow,’ he said, or something like it, as he looked me up and down.
‘I know,’ I replied. I took off my coat and passed it to him. ‘Here you go.’
‘Oh. Yes,’ he said. He took it from me, revolved once, awkwardly, on his own axis, and then hung it over a peg.
‘Thanks,’ I said.
He replied by turning around and smiling at me sheepishly. Then he moved towards me, his body close enough to mine that I could smell his skin, the faint, bitumen tang of cigarettes and aftershave, and he took his hand and ran it up my side with a pleased expression. ‘Mmm,’ he said.
‘Can I have a glass of water?’ I said.
He looked up at me. ‘Huh?’ he said. Then he took his hand off my side. ‘Yeah, of course, sorry,’ he said. He turned and scuttled through a plastic door that had been covered with something to make it look like wood. I followed him. On the other side was a miserable little kitchen, an emporium of novelty tea towels and unwashed pans and an overpowering smell of cumin, the splashback tiles decorated with a flower pattern and splatters of old food. I watched as he took a glass from the cabinet – the kind of cut-crystal glass popular with pensioners – and filled it from the tap. I made sure to keep my eyes open constantly, to make sure he didn’t crush a pill into it or anything. He didn’t. I drank the water.
‘Here,’ I said, returning the glass. He put it down on the worktop.
‘So,’ he said. He moved nearer to me again, close, so his body was pressed against mine and his hand was on my chest. I felt the front of his jockstrap. He was already pathetically hard, and I realised what a treat this must be for him. I allowed him to kiss me. His tongue was like a small animal, a small animal dying in my mouth, twitching in the final spasms of life. I kept my eyes open, but his were closed. ‘Fuck,’ he said, when he drew his head back. He took my hand and led me to the bedroom. It was even more ghastly than the kitchen; a sinister boudoir of scarves draped over lampshades and weird, drippy paintings tacked up all over the walls.
‘Do you like my artwork?’ the man said, gesturing.
I peered at it, through the gloom. The one closest to me depicted some kind of bacchanalian orgy; men with beards and tattoos writhing over each other, penises pointing at open orifices. It was truly abysmal. ‘Yes,’ I said.
‘God, you’re hot,’ he said, sitting down on the bed. He plucked with one hand at the front of his jockstrap.
‘Mmhmm,’ I said. ‘Would you like to see me without my clothes on?’
He looked surprised, and then eager. ‘Mm, yeah,’ he said. He leaned back and put his hands behind his head. I believe he thought I was about to do a kind of sexy striptease, and so I deliberately disrobed as coldly as possible, removing my clothes as though I was undressing a corpse, as though I was in a doctor’s office, asking them to examine a haemorrhoid.
‘Fuck,’ said the man, when I was naked before him. He started to remove his t-shirt.
‘Keep that on, please,’ I said, eyeing the pale, quivering flesh around his midriff.
‘What?’ he said, struggling to pull it over his head.
‘Put your shirt back on. Or I’m leaving.’
He let go of the t-shirt and moved his arms in a downward motion, so it fell back over his belly, a curtain at a nauseating peepshow. He looked a tiny bit hurt. I didn’t care. ‘Sorry,’ he said. He shuffled across the bed towards me and laid his hands on my thighs, making bovine noises of contentment as he did so. I tensed all the muscles in my body, and he seemed to enjoy that tremendously, because he started giving me a blowjob. I was able to achieve and maintain an erection, not because I was particularly aroused, but because I ordered my dick to get hard. The man’s mouth was cold and wet, and he had sharp little teeth that sometimes scratched me, but I said nothing. After a while, he came up for air and looked at me with a grin I suppose he thought wicked, but actually appeared gormless. ‘You like that?’ he said.
‘Yeah,’ I said. I adopted the languid, half whispering voice of someone in the throes of passion. ‘It feels so good.’
‘Fuck,’ he said, the credulous fool. ‘You like feeding me?’
‘What do you think, when you see me sucking you?’
‘I think you look pathetic,’ I said.
He thought I was roleplaying. I wasn’t. ‘Oh yeah,’ he said. ‘I’m a pathetic little pig.’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Fuck,’ he said. ‘Can I take some photographs of you?
I had known that he would ask this, and therefore had already formulated an official response. ‘Only if I get final approval,’ I said.
‘What?’ he said.
It means, only if I can look at them after, and delete any pictures I don’t like.’
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Yeah, of course, yeah.’
‘Great.’ He got up from the bed and started burrowing in a chest of drawers in the corner of the room, his dark, sinister arse crack unpleasantly parted as he crouched in his jockstrap.
‘Can I get high?’ I said.
‘Uh, yeah,’ he replied, distracted. I picked my jeans up off the floor, took the pipe out of my pocket, and lit it.
‘Here,’ he said eventually, turning around, a black SLR in his hands. He looked up at me. ‘God, you look amazing,’ he said.
I exhaled a cloud of smoke. ‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘So. Are you going to take my picture?’
He raised the camera up in front of him, and I got down on the bed, propping myself with one elbow, the other arm outstretched, holding the pipe like an odalisque. The camera flashed, and the photographer peered at the little digital screen on the back. ‘Wow,’ is all he said.
‘You want more?’ I said. I set the pipe on the bedside table, then got up so I was on one knee, with my elbow resting on my thigh, chin propped on my hand. The camera flashed again. Straight away I adopted another pose, hands on hips, staring off into the distance with a handsomely furrowed brow. Another flash, and I started touching myself.
‘That’s brilliant,’ said the photographer. ‘More like that.’
I gripped my penis, hard. ‘It’ll look better if you take it from lower down,’ I said, and the photographer knelt and took the picture. ‘Show me,’ I said. He handed me the camera, and I scrolled through the photos. He was right. I looked phenomenal. The flash – usually an unflattering addition to any portrait, lent me a glamorous air, as though being caught by a paparazzo. I felt something like love. ‘You can keep them all,’ I said, handing the SLR back.
‘Thanks,’ he said. He looked at me, then down at the camera, then swiveled his eyes back up like Princess Diana. ‘Would it be alright if I filmed you?’
I picked up the pipe, took a puff on it, and considered this proposition. Any sense I had that it might be unwise seemed far away and trifling. I wanted only to continue. A screen test like this could be a useful, I thought, beneficial to my acting career.
‘Alright,’ I said.
The photographer started recording.
The whole of the next day I was in a good mood. I actually answered some phone calls instead of leaving them all to Eileen. One of them was from a woman who wanted to know if we had an aesthetician, someone who could inject her with botox and fillers and make her look young again. I told her we didn’t, but I made a note of the request on a post-it and decided to bring it up with management sometime. It sounded like a good idea. Everyone wants to be beautiful. The foot traffic was fairly light, so I took a long lunchbreak, went to the food court, and treated myself to a salad. What the hell, I thought. It’s okay to let loose sometimes. Then I went into Zara, bought a pair of sunglasses, and wore them for the rest of the afternoon, at my desk.
‘You look chic,’ said Eileen, towards the end of the day. She was hole punching some files, banging down the handle each time with a crunching sound, all the little circles of paper getting sliced away.
‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘I know.’
‘My grandson has a pair just like that,’ she said. ‘Where are they from?’
‘Gucci,’ I said.
‘Wow,’ said Eileen. ‘Must have been pricey.’
‘Yeah,’ I said. Dear Eileen. Dear, sweet Eileen. How foolish you are. Knowing me will be the most exciting thing to ever happen to you.
She finished her hole punching, put on her coat, and slung her handbag over her shoulder. ‘Alright, I’m off,’ she said, waving goodbye. ‘Have a nice evening.’
‘Bye,’ I said. The nurses left soon after that, and then the dentist went home too. The caretaker came and hoovered around me. Then he departed. I closed the shutter, switched off the lights, and went into the treatment room.
The chair was dark and majestic, like a throne. Its rubbered, wipe-clean surface felt as luxurious to me as velvet or satin when I climbed into it. I took my pipe out of my pocket, filled it, then used the chair’s control pad to zoom myself back into a recumbent position. It was like being in the planetarium. I lit the pipe and smoked for a while, then used the remote to switch on the overhead screen. There was the coral reef, the drifting, underwater foliage, tropical fish darting in and out of tiny holes in the rocks. I ignored it, enabled my phone’s Bluetooth function, and found what I wanted.
The porn site opened up on the exact page, the video beaming down on me from above; a vision. Smoke drifted from my pipe, it filled me with utmost pleasure. The video was playing, and I was talking, looking at myself, at the myself who was on the other side of the camera, in the chair. I wasn’t wearing anything.
‘Do you like that?’ I said, touching myself. I was deepening my voice, speaking with an accent. ‘I bet you do.’
‘Yes,’ I mouthed, from my seat.
‘I see you watching me all the time,’ I said. ‘And I know you want me. I know you can’t get enough of me.’
‘You really love me, don’t you? Yeah?’
‘I love you too. I love you too, baby.’
I watched the video until the end, until the screen went black and I was alone in the chair, awed. Then I put it back to the beginning for another screening. I repeated this many times. I saw myself do things, saw the contours and openings of my body, all the facets of humanity that I could display. I smoked my pipe. I was good, I thought, I was brilliant. I think I gave the performance of my career.
Micky Peters is a queer Anglo-Irish writer based in London. His fiction has appeared in Lunate, Misery Tourism and Neuro Logical Magazine, with further writing in Garageland Reviews and at The Bomb Factory Art Foundation. He tweets @micky_pete .