"The Pickup Artist" by C. Ben Stevenson



Lana lit my hair on fire a couple weeks ago trying to light a stogie, so she crinkles her arm when we embrace to avoid a repeat singe. She squeezes my chest with her fist on my shoulder blade as we touch cheeks and my nose nudges her earlobe. She inhales her clove cigarette and exhales before she kisses me on the cheek, on the forehead. She smells like Christmas, L’Oréal, French fries, and lust. Even though our jeans are chafing on crevices and folds, our sweat-soaked clothes never smelled better. My nose rubs along her earlobe until I feel wet hair. Seaweed shampoo from the local organic co-op. I know it from massaging it into her scalp many years ago.

She pulls away, says “Take care cowboy,” pats me on the butt and adjusts her glasses. She puts her palm to lips, smooches it, and blows me a kiss with jazz hands. I wink like Vin from The Magnificent Seven.

I leave her at the punk bar and march north on the main drag. We used to be an item. The gross kind. The-make-out-in-the-Giant-on-aisle-14-to-cheers-of-employees-and-groans-of-customers kind. The lets-have-sex-in-public-restrooms-and-on-the-highway-on-top kind of item. Calf love in freshly graying corpses until the honeymoon finished. We split on mostly amicable terms.

She asked me to stop by. I thought to talk about a favorite writer’s new novel. Instead we crooned love songs at each other with our eyelashes and lip shapes.

The world is blurry and I’m a bit wobbly from too many dollar Pabst tallboys. A car slows down beside me, and in Washington, DC, the gay friendliest city in the world, a rando yells something homophobic.

I try to take to social media to proclaim that street harassment looks so different to guys than it does women, that men never get catcalled. Instead we get stuff like Mr. Rando—but I’m too drunk for my thumbs. But what did it? My shiny blue shoes? The sports coat? My hair? What made Mr. Rando decide he needed to call me something like that? I do look dapper in my cheap threads.

At a major intersection, the sign says “walk,” and we stroll across. Women giggle on their way to bars while, men point chins forward, exposing their necks with guffaws and confidence behind trimmed beards. There’s an old saying from Marilyn Monroe about building sex appeal, something about being able to imagine having sex with every person you meet. It sounds exhausting, but I don’t do it to be horny. I want people to want me.

For the most part it works out. Although, last week, a young college student with her friend walked up to me and my girlfriend and said, “I want you to Fifty Shades of Grey me.” My girlfriend thought it hilarious. She always does.

As I imagine fucking everyone in the crosswalks, cars brake at streetlights knowing they could kill us with a lifted foot. An older lady walks her happy puppy whose tail wags away everyone’s fear.

As I pass a convenience store, two guys come out the alley. I keep on and one guy shouts, “Hey!”

I stop and turn. One guy, tall and in white t-shirt and sweatpants, gets in front of me and the other dressed in SWAT black, comes behind. I nod, friendly-like.

“Do you have a cigarette?”

I take out my Pall Malls and give him one.

“Hell yeah,” he says. “Real man’s cigarette.”

“Do you need a light?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says, and I pass matches. He tries striking a couple, when I pull out a lighter and light his cigarette. I light one up for myself. I offer SWAT guy one. He declines.

“How’s your day?” I ask.

“It’s really shitty. My mom’s in the hospital, and I can’t pay my rent. My job sucks and it’s just an all-around bad day.”

“I’m really sorry to hear that,” I say.

“Thank you,” he says. “Just give it to the lord. But you’re real kind.”

SWAT guy says, “Oh no! Can we just do it now?”

“No, not this guy,” says the smoker, as he exhales.

“What?” I say.

“We were supposed to rob you.”

“You were what?” I repeat.

“But I can’t,” he becomes solemn. “Because you listened to me go on about my day.”

“Well,” I say, “I’m a nice guy, I guess.”

“You’re too nice,” he says, “I’d rather rob one of these other motherfuckers out here instead. Rude motherfuckers.”

There’s an awkward silence.

“Thanks for the cigarette and giving me an ear,” he says.

“No problem,” I say. We shake hands.

He asks, “How would you like to go out for drinks?”

“Uh, no!” I say. Realizing they tried to rob me, I say, “I need to get back to my girlfriend. She’s waiting for me.”

“You don’t have a girlfriend,” he snarls.

“I do.”

“If you have a girlfriend then you are lying to her. Why are you lying to her?”

I look at the guy behind me leaning against a mailbox.

“I’m not lying and I should get going.”

“Okay, okay, you SHOULD go before I change my mind. But let me get your number so that we can hook up. I’ll send you a picture of my trouser snake.”

I look over at the SWAT guy who says, “I don’t agree with this at all. Please know that I do not support his lifestyle."

I look back at Mr. Trouser Snake. It’s not that I didn’t find the man attractive, I did, and I am a switch-hitter, it’s just that- who the hell goes on a date with someone who almost robbed them? Getting hit on by men isn’t all too foreign to me either. So many men have tried to cruise me by showing me their peckers, whether on the phone, or next to me in the stall.

“It’s cool,” I say. “I don’t need to see it.”

But he’s already pulled up a photo of his weiner on his flip phone and is waving it around. Every time I tell this story to women, they usually laugh. When I tell men they always ask how big it was. It’s hard to tell from a flip phone photo and whether he played with angles, but definitely it’s someone’s bits plastered over the screen.

Mr. Trouser Snake put his hands together and says, “You don’t understand, I’ve been to prison and sometimes I float a certain way and I’ve got a good dick. Ask anyone on U Street and give them my name! They’ll tell you I am the best in town.”

“Who will tell you?” says the other.

Trouser Snake lists the names of a bunch of women, and then he asks me, “What’s your name?”

I tell him the wrong name, “Gary.”

He tells me his name. He says it and I repeat it. I say it again and, “The best dick in town, gotcha! I look forward to it. Where do you usually hang out?”

“Right here. Stop by some time. You’re really pretty and you are so nice. We can do a floozy in the Jacuzzi.”

“I’ll stop by tomorrow night.”

I won’t stop by the next night or any night.

I turn and walk north again. I hear them arguing about how nothing went to plan and how picking up dates is not the same thing as robbery.

I high tail it north, and on up to my apartment.

I open the door and my partner wakes up and says, “Are you okay? How’s Lana?”

“Lana’s fine. I’m fine,” I say. “But I just had the weirdest interaction.”

“What happened?”

“I almost got mugged but the guy asked me out for drinks. Isn’t that funny?”

“You really woke me up to tell me guys thought you were hot?”

“I almost got mugged.”

“Yeah okay. You should’ve just said that. I never want to hear about how men think you are hot. Okay? If you want to date guys, do that. No straight woman wants to think about her man with other men.”

“But I almost got mugged.”

“But you didn’t,” she says. “I’m the girl. I’m the pretty one. Learn this. Girls don’t like men who need compliments.”

“What the fuck?” I say as I peel my clothes off.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “Sorry you almost got mugged. They probably thought you were gay because you’re too friendly. But I’ve been telling you for years, you shouldn’t talk to anyone you don’t know in the city. That’s country shit. It’s time to learn city shit. Get some street smarts.”

I shake my head, crawl and walk to the window overlooking the city. Thinking about the interaction out on the street, maybe the problem really is me. I think back to the girl who wanted me to Christian Grey her, so sure that I was hers. A couple weeks ago at a club, a woman walked right up to me and kissed me without my consent and I had to fight her off. She wanted to take me home to her husband. Jesus Christ! What if Mr. Rando called me that because he also wanted to take me home? How many people have accused me of leading them on or friendzoning them? 1, 2, 3, 4…oh God. Am I just a tease to everyone?

Maybe I should insure my legs for a $1 million like that lady in the lobby said when I wore shorts that one time.

I light a cigarette and remember a girl in 3rd grade who called me ugly in the worst way possible and I:

1. Wonder why she has so much power over me and

2. Believe she’s the only person telling the truth.