Phantom Sex Syndrome.

Being Chapter 12 in the tale, The Only Way Was East.

Giovan J. Michael
8 min readOct 15, 2020

Phantom Sex Syndrome.

The morning was quiet. We decided to spend it on the rocks, at the broken jetty that wasn’t a jetty. The graveyard of forgotten homes in the neighborhood that had fallen prey to the appetite of the Pacific. We didn’t say much. How could we with the remnants of the night before still sloshing against our memory? So, we just sat there and listened to the little grey waves for a while as the sun rose and the day moved on without us.

“I brought weed…” Calluna said, after the silence had said all it could say. “Want to smoke a bit before we head back?” And as I looked up from my crumpled chimney to the large wooden door where she sat above me, I saw her pull a one-hitter out of her tube sock. It was tucked away between the pan-African colored nylon threads and the crevice in her ankle. “Works every time,” she said.

“You smuggled weed across the border??” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want you to worry,” she said. “Now hit this,” and she passed it to me. I said that she was right, that I probably would not have been able to play it cool. I’m not very good at that, I thought. And then I took a hit. I breathed in as much as I could, trying to inhale the salty air around me and mix it with the smoke. I pictured myself breathing in the four elements. The oxygen, fire, water particles and microscopic bits of earth all mixing in the air and traveling down my windpipe, through my lungs and into my bloodstream. Or at least I tried to, because halfway through this meditation a thought came up and kicked me in the right lung sack and all four elements retreated out of me in a vomit-like cough that burned my throat.

No. You’re not very good at playing it cool, the thought said, bluntly. Or much else, for that matter, and along with this voice came a fugue of memories from the night before. I couldn’t piece them together, the events of the evening were all but lost to me. I saw images, though. Images that were not fun to see: me crying alone in the bathroom, me furiously stomping at a puddle, me sitting alone in the corner of a strip-club, and finally a big ol’ bundle o’ me crumpled up with the blankets and sheets as I lay alone on the bed next to Calluna, the phantom of sex-that-could-have-been nestlinging iteself between us. I found her condoms the next morning when she asked me to grab a hairtie from her bag. That was the nail in the coffin for me. I had done it again, I had uselessly ruined another night in my life, and I felt compelled to apologize for it.

“Calluna,” I said, but I was interrupted by a cough. I felt fire at the back of my lungs as smoke convulsed itself out of my body.

“Yeah?” She said, taking the little pipe and packing it again. The waves below us were getting louder, and so she almost had to shout it at me.

I told her that I was sorry for last night. That I couldn’t exactly remember what had happened, but that I was still sorry. I’m sure I brought the mood down, I said. I’m sure I found some way to make this wonderful little adventure we planned a terrible time for myself. You seemed to be smiling most of the night, but still, I know the weight that a person’s energy can have and I’m so sorry you had to do all the heavy lifting, I said. I told her that this all comes down to sex for me, and I know it’s immature but it does. I told her that I have these voices in my head. (Not like crazy-person voices, but like the everyday-normal voices that ruin everyday-normal people’s lives.) One of these voices tells me that I’m never going to be whole without sex. The other voice tells me what a dirty sinner I am for even thinking about sex in the first place. I’m so selfish, so hedonistic, so awful for wanting to validate myself in that way, the voice says. Couldn’t you be doing something more productive with all that energy? the voice asks me.

I saw Calluna’s eyes from the other side of her fogged-up glasses. They looked at me with deep compassion and sorrow. She closed her eyes for a moment to let out an exhale of smoke from her nostrils, but she didn’t say anything, just kept looking at me as the waves crashed louder and louder. I took that as a sign to keep going, so I did.

I know I tend to get caught up in extremes, I said. I know that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and that sex is neither all that great or all that terrible, but I felt trapped on the hamster wheel of phantom sex shame. Today, we’re in Mexico, but I’ve lived last night a hundred times over in different bars and parties around the world, and it’s the same small, pointless feeling every time. I told her that I didn’t know where this need to validate myself with sex came from, but that it probably had something to do with Sam Bowler in the bathroom.

Sam, I explained, was my teammate in high school, and he loved to torment me. Somehow, the fact that I was still a virgin leaked to the rest of the team and he milked that bit of intel for all it was worth. He used to tell people that I hadn’t fucked a girl because I was gay, and he would make a big show out of telling me not to look at him in the locker room while he changed. One day, while I was taking a piss, Sam walked into the bathroom and began to blabber on and on about wrestling. I hadn’t finished pissing, but I clenched the piss in anyway and zipped up. I didn’t want my dick out in the same room as this creep. I kept saying “yeah Sam. Sure, Sam” as I tried to squeeze past him and out the door, but he caught me by the throat and pushed me onto the stall door like a small frog on an amputation board. He put his nose close to my neck and he breathed in my smell and then he asked me if I would give him a kiss, since I was a faggot and all.

Maybe a twinge of guilt struck him when he saw the tears welling up in my eyes (why am I always crying?) but he let me go and started laughing and kept laughing all the way out of the bathroom. When I looked down, I saw that I had pissed myself.

I know it seems small, but maybe all of this has to do with that moment. Maybe I learned that being a virgin makes me vulnerable in the world of men, and so I decided to run as fast and as I could in the other direction. To try to have as much sex as I could which, (I’ll admit) gets in the way of sex more often than it helps. But probably not. It’s probably not about that at all and I’m probably just giving myself an alibi for the sexist way I think about women, for the fact that I feel sorry for myself when I can’t use them in the way that I want to. Listen, Calluna I’m really sorry you had to hear my ramble. I didn’t mean for it to come out like this, I’m just so high and I wanted to apologize, which I did, so I’ll shut up now, I’m sorry.

She exhaled smoke once more. She looked like a dragon lounging in its mound of gold the way she sat on our little pile of ruins by the sea. She had that same deep look she’d been giving me during my entire diatribe, but I saw it slowly change into something else. A look that looked nothing like compassion, and a lot more like horror, and she didn’t say anything for a long time and all I heard was the crashing of the waves, which had gotten much bigger and much louder as the day went on with its business.

“…Well?” I said when I couldn’t bear the silence any longer.

“Dude, I am so, so sorry!” she yelled down at me from her door.

“It’s okay!” I didn’t mean to scream it back at her, but the waves had gotten so loud that it was necessary. I was too high to realize that I didn’t have to stay down there, and Calluna was too high to remind me, so we stayed like that for a while, screaming a conversation at eachother from across the maritime graveyard. “It was years ago, I mean it doesn’t get to me like it used to!”

“No, listen! I was just sitting here, looking at you, listening to the waves, getting high as fuck, and suddenly I was like ‘Is someone talking to me?’ And I realized that you’d been talking for a long, long time, but I couldn’t hear you over the waves and I thought I would just jump in halfway, you know? Like starting at the season finale and figuring the the plot out as you go, but then I saw this little priest at his church up the coast there and that creeped me out and I started to think about religion and I looked down at you again and realized that you were still talking! It looked like you really needed to say whatever you said and I didn’t want to interrupt your flow but I have absolutely zero fucking clue what you said. I’m sorry, I’m a terrible friend, but I’m here now and I’m ready to listen!”

Another long silence. Then we laughed and kept on laughing until I noticed that my feet were getting wet from the waves grabbing at me from below. I climbed the rocks and bricks and boards from the water’s edge up to Calluna’s perch on the door. I sat next to her and looked out at that grey pacific water.

“Could I have a hug?”

“Umm, okay sure, but didn’t you have all this stuff to tell me?”

“Fuck all that stuff I had to tell you. I want a hug. I’m hungover and a little sad, and I want a hug. Then, I want to get some food and then, I want to get the fuck out of this country.”

And that’s what we did. She hugged me and I thanked her for being my friend. Then we took a bus back to the border where we crossed without event and were picked up by her mother and her baby sister who wanted to show off the teal rubberbands she’d put on her braces. Even on the other side of the wall though, I could still hear the echo of that beat up blue Toyota with the loudspeaker screaming “Tamales, tamales, tamales muy riiiiiiicos y baratos!”