A woman standing listless in front of a periodic-table-sized Greek menu stared blankly, her eyes shrink-wrapped with insomnia and hatred for the world, waiting for Peter and me to order. She didn’t seem amused by my indecision, so I picked the only thing on the menu that I could pronounce.
“I’ll have a gyro,” I said, pronouncing it “ji-row.” Peter chuckled.
“What he meant to say was ‘yee-ey-roh’,” Peter said to the woman, followed by an apologetic smile on my behalf. The woman didn’t seem amused by Peter’s kind gesture either and continued her unblinking, writhing stare, waiting to put in our orders, head back to the kitchen and instruct the cook to defile our food.
To my surprise, my order came with a large side of fries, a large salad and a large drink. This establishment was one of those B-graded places that try to compensate for their shitty food quality by stuffing you with a large quantity of it. Peter ordered a side salad and a Styrofoam cup for water.
As I struggled to chew the dry strips of rubbery lamb, crunchy with bits of ground bone, Peter made an attempt to educate me on whatever bullshit was floating around in his head. It was a habit of his that I didn’t find particularly amusing. For tonight’s lesson, he was going to teach me about the finer details of Greek cuisine.
“Tzaztiki sauce is made out of cucumber,” he said, as he angled the greasy bottle onto my food basket and squeezed it, ejaculating a spurt of sauce onto my sinewy cuts of meat.
Up to this point, all of our interactions had been kept strictly within the confines of the college bookstore we worked at. We were friendly, but weren’t really friends. The foreplay that two people enjoy during the beginning period of their acquaintance, before they decide whether to become real friends or people that they used to know, was nearing its end for us. This was our chance to see if our relationship could survive beyond the book stacks.
Peter was older, in his late fifties, maybe sixties, and preferred not to socialize with college-aged employees. A loner by choice. He believed that his intellectual superiority wouldn’t allow them to keep up with his wit and sense of humor. He spoke German and wore rings bearing strange sigils that had obscure, mystical Celtic significance. The fact that I was a few decades younger than Peter, and still able to carry a stimulating conversation with him made me believe that maybe we could indeed be friends.
My coworkers didn’t see this other side of Peter. They refused to. They were too focused with his obsession of correcting their grammar and accusing them of contaminating the English language. I admit that it wasn’t easy to be around Peter, but I refused succumbing to the same prejudices my coworkers had built around him. Besides, it felt dangerous to hang out with the most despicable person in the bookstore, a man that was even disliked by management. The boss kept Peter around because he couldn’t just fire him for being grossly unpopular.
The unknown quality that had at first attracted me to Peter, the challenge of winning over someone you admire and proving to them that you are worth their time, soon became the very reason why I grew tired of him. The more I got to know him, the needier he became. I found his presence suffocating, especially the excuses he would fabricate just to have something to talk to me about. His constant checking up on me. He was aware that I enjoyed the occasional dirty pun, but he soon began using this licentious liberty to introduce sexual anecdotes, such as sharing his opinion on what outfits my bare chest would look good in, and live updates on the erectness of his penis and the reasons behind its petrification.
Peter had a unique way of demonstrating his affection towards me, prodding the small of my back with his index finger as I bent over to pick up a stack of books, and whispering “Freeze!” into my ear. When I would turn around to confirm that indeed it was Peter, he’d burst out laughing in what sounded like a combination of a seizure and an asthma attack. “It’s a little something I like to do,” he said. “It has a sexual connotation that I’m not comfortable discussing at work.”
After a while, it didn’t matter what the topic of conversation was, Peter seemed to find a way of twisting and turning it into something sexual.
“Are you here to ask me something or to look at my legs?” he said, as he was standing on a tall ladder. He was wearing shorts, as he commonly did, exposing his pale, harry legs, striped with varicose veins and spangled with leaky capillaries.
“No,” I said, wincing at the thought. My attraction towards Peter was intellectual and the only organ of his I wanted to interact with was his brain. “I just wanted to ask–“
“You know I have a foot fetish,” he said, bursting out into his spastic laughter. “Don’t be such a tease.” As I walked away, half indignant, half appalled, Peter kept calling me back, promising to be serious.
He often mentioned how he and his partner were devout practitioners of the Wiccan religion, according to him, his ancestors’ true religion. On one occasion, Peter described to me a secret ritual that took place at one of the covens. One in which he and other members of his sect would receive fellatio from a young initiate, who would then take their semen and swallow it.
“They really are a ton of fun. You should join us sometime,” he suggested.
At the time, part of me knew that the relationship Peter had with me was of a predatory nature, but I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt and simply see it as one of his many quirks. Embrace it as part of his personality, as part of what made him unique. However, Peter mistook my willingness to be open with him for vulnerability. Because I hadn’t made it known to him that his advances were bothersome, he accepted my silence as consent.
“So, can I see your feet?” Peter asked, as we waited for our bus outside the Greek restaurant. I was taken aback by the directness of his request, but not completely surprised. I couldn’t really think of a reason why showing Peter my foot could potentially backfire. His attraction towards me wasn’t as subtle as he thought and his flirtation had replaced the witty banter we once shared. Maybe if I gave him what he craved for so much, he could see that there was no chemistry, get over it and move on. Maybe by doing this, Peter and I could find that first high and rekindle our intellectual conversations.
As I began untying my sneaker, Peter sat there slapping his hands on his thighs.
“I didn’t know that you also took this bus,” Peter said. I found his attempt of making this situation less awkward to be pathetic, like a cop trying to be your friend as he’s writing you up for speeding. “I wonder why I’ve never seen you on it.” I laughed, rolling the slightly moist sock off my foot and balling it into my empty shoe.
I was aware that we took the same bus for a while, even before we had stricken our first conversation. Back when I agreed with most of my coworkers that Peter was a fucking weirdo. I used to avoid boarding the same bus as him, opting to wait another hour or so for the next one to arrive.
“Yeah, what a coincidence,” I said.
“Well, I think the word you should’ve used is ‘serendipitous’,” he said leaning back on his seat, stroking his rogue mustache and beard with his thumb and index fingers, drawing an oval from the base of his nose, around his lips, down and around his chin. “What you should’ve said is ‘How serendipitous’.”
This was the way that Peter treated people, preferring to be right in spite of being perceived as an asshole. He only ate peanut butter sandwiches for lunch out of a scratched-up, microwave-mutilated, green-lidded Tupperware that was the exact dimensions of four soggy bread slices. He was getting a Master’s degree in Magical Arts and never divulged what he planned to do with it after he graduated. His hair was long and oily, wispy with barely enough girth to support a hair tie. He didn’t care if his druidic peanut butter breath and armpit stench bothered anybody he came in contact with.
“It’s just cheaper if you don’t care about what people think,” Peter once told me.
As I rolled up my pant sleeve to my left knee, partially cutting the blood circulation, Peter took my foot with such gentleness and care. The soft night breeze grazed cool on my skin as Peter held my foot in his sweaty palm. He was acting differently, unlike the aggressive, combative attitude he took against argumentative customers or incompetent coworkers. This was Peter the lover. He looked at my foot from all angles. I thought of him as a doctor, a podiatrist. At least, that’s how I decided to feel about it. He analyzed the sole and thumbed his way down from the ball of my foot to the heel. Every couple of seconds he hummed softly, “Hmmm…hmmm…hmmm.” It reminded me of a foot exam, as if he were approving my foot, saying “Hmmm, yes. This is a strong, healthy foot.” I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the massaging gestures of his hands felt great, almost therapeutic after walking in a maze of books, for four hours straight. The hums started to morph in to moans, dropping the Hippocratic “h” altogether. He raised my foot closer to his face and readjusted his glasses as he squinted.
“Please don’t put it in your mouth,” I requested, slightly retracting my foot, laughing nervously. It was my version of the call girl “no-kiss-on-the-lips” clause. I wanted to keep it casual, but the pressure he was applying to my foot, along with his breathing, became more violent. More amorous. His thumbs were pressing themselves into the folds on the plant of my foot, past my nerves and muscles, into my bones.
As Peter placed my sweaty foot on his lap, I was trying to think of ways to desexualize what was going on between us. An argument in which him deriving sexual pleasure from touching this utilitarian extremity was not akin to cupping a breast or jerking a penis. It was only my stinky foot after all, it wasn’t like it was my mouth or my ass being used for erotic purposes. I caught a hint of peanut butter as he crinkled his nose, letting his jaw drop and sticking his tongue out, as he did every time he analyzed something. He did it to read the fine print on book receipts and as he stared intently at my left toe.
Being treated as a sexual object took me by surprise. I was fully aware that Peter had a foot fetish and, thanks to internet porn, what a fetish itself was. I was there, at our store’s Christmas party, when he broadcasted to the whole staff that he had an affinity for feet. I laughed nervously when our boss teased Peter of being a pedophile. I was the one that went up to Peter, after all of our coworkers had had their fill of ridiculing him, and asked follow up questions about his sexual deviancy related to foot worship. If I had indeed initiated this, then why was I wishing I had never initiated it at all?
Moments later, Peter began to tug repeatedly at the fabric in his crotch. It didn’t look as though he was pleasing himself, it seemed like he had already taken care of that part during the moaning. His face showed signs of discomfort. When I studied the area, I noticed that— even in the dim street lighting— a small stain had bloomed and puddled on his khaki pants. The dark circle was immediately concealed when he placed his backpack on his lap. The warm build-up and release now left both his crotch and my foot out in the cold.
Peter was gay, so what did that make me? I knew this for a fact because he had shown me a picture of him and his partner once. He was married to a man who looked like his identical twin. Together, they looked like Gandalf the White embracing Gandalf the Grey. Like Thing 1 and Thing 2. But now, not even the vastness of Seussian wit could help to name the thing I had just taken part in. This man had just made love to my foot with his hand and stained his pants as a result.
Had this made me gay, even if I hadn’t derived any form of pleasure from the act? I couldn’t feel relief even after we had consummated Peter’s strange request. Not when semen was spilled. My mother once told me that when a man comes, he only does so out of love. Women can fake it all they want, but men can’t.
“He feels it every time, even when whacking off a quick one in a bathroom he wouldn’t even take a shit in,” my mother once said. “It’s like spilling blood.”
If Peter were to be found dead later that night, the police would bring me in for questioning after they found my DNA— skin cells and lint— under his dirty, lifeless fingernails. I could be convicted of his murder based on what we had just done. Brutal, bizarre Los Angeles Murder Case, Began with sex and suicide, the headline would read. I had played along with Peter’s fucked up joke and I figured that I wasn’t the first person ever to use sex as a weapon, as a means of getting what I wanted, having seen my mother do it many times before.
Peter looked away as I slipped my toes back into the cold sock, over my instep, rolling the cuff midway up my shin. He was such a gentleman. I broke the silence by mentioning to him that it had been my first time eating Greek food.
“It’s quite good, isn’t it?” Peter asked, scratching the bald spot at the crown of his head.
“Yeah, I think I’m starting to develop a taste for it,” I said, mirroring his uneasiness. It was our way of checking to see if the other was okay. Of asking, “Was it good for you?”
As I tied my shoelaces, I looked up at him, he was sniffing his hands, snorting the sourness of my feet, taking deep breaths of my essence. We continued to sit there without exchanging a word or glance. All I could think of was of the great pun that this encounter had created. One about a man who had helped another pour cucumber sauce all over his leg of lamb and, in return, had needed to use the latter’s foot to help the former pour his cucumber’s sauce. The night’s demureness and the wind’s howling aversion told me that it probably wasn’t an appropriate time for joking. Peter continued to drum his palms on his thighs.
When the bus finally arrived, Peter shot up and walked briskly towards the door. He looked back, a gesture that he was waiting for me to board.
“You know, I actually need to stop by the library to pick up a book,” I said. “Go on ahead without me.” Peter went inside and the bus drove off. I sat back down on the bus bench and waited another hour or so for the next bus to arrive.
After that episode, Peter kept asking to see my feet. Sometimes, he would approach me and not even bother with a greeting of any type or even say “Freeze!” He’d simply ask to see my feet with the ease that one opens the refrigerator, and grabs a beer with the only goal of satisfying a longing. He asked multiple times a day. The same question.
“So, when can I look at your feet again?” Peter asked.
I was neck deep into something I only wanted to dip my toe in. Did he expect me to kick my shoes off, throw caution, along with my socks, to the wind and show him my feet in broad bookstore with coworkers and students walking around? Did he think we were lovers? And I, his mistress?
After I realized that our encounter did nothing to improve our friendship, I did what my mother would do and I began to distance myself from Peter. Like her, I tend to attract needy people in an effort to feel needed. My mother attracted and nurtured a doomed relationship past the torrents of marriage and the penal system, for as long as she could, until my father served her the divorce papers from prison. My relationship with Peter had reached this point.
My disassociation from Peter began to garner as much attention in the bookstore as when I first started talking to him. The staff continued to view Peter as strange as ever and me a little less so.
“You guys looked fucking weird together,” a coworker mentioned. “He looked like your grandfather.”
I wanted to tell her that he actually was a very nice guy and that he was weird for reasons other than the ones she and everybody else thought. Reasons unknown to her. But I withheld the real reason out of respect for Peter. His work life was already hard enough with all of his neuroses and stigmas that came from being the oldest person around. I didn’t want to add the title of pervert, which he was, onto his plate and the title of gay lover, which I totally wasn’t, to mine.
“Yeah, he’s a fucking weirdo,” I replied, taking the most humane route, a mercy kill, and giving my coworker the validation she so callously craved for.
I walked towards the bus stop after another late shift. Peter had worked that same shift with me, but he wasn’t waiting for the bus at his usual spot. I assumed that his partner had picked him up, as was sometimes the case. I boarded the incoming bus, looked around and I didn’t see him there, to my relief. We both knew what I had done to him. We had both used each other, but I felt that I had done so with a wicked motive in mind, and he was merely satisfying his basal needs.
The bus arrived at its next stop and a group of people got in. Peter was one of them. I fixed my gaze on him, trying not to blink, as to not miss the moment when our sights could possibly cross. He paid for his fare and walked down the seat-framed walkway. As he neared my seat, he didn’t even glance towards my direction. When he passed me, I got a hint of peanut butter mixed with the ripeness of compounded underarm sweat, two scents that I had nostalgically associated with him. Peter found a seat near the rear of the bus.
I kept looking back, partly to see what he was doing and partly to see if he would finally notice that I was also on the bus, a serendipitous phenomenon he wondered about the night he fondled my foot. He didn’t. He simply looked out the window and dozed off with his mouth open.
Bilicko, C. (2017). Push, Pull [Painting]. Oil and acrylic on canvas, Long Beach, CA.