Stories

Salt – Reuben Dendinger

Conservatives, eager to defame and stamp out human joy wherever they find it, have promulgated various malicious canards on the topic of sex, among them the notion that overexposure to sexual pleasure leads to the dulling of one’s taste, that what once was perverse, when indulged, becomes familiar, and eventually boring. Like an addict developing a tolerance to a drug, the sex-haver must seek out more and more abnormal forms of stimulation, further degrading himself, his lovers, and his entire culture, in a downward spiral leading to the disintegration of all Western civilization.
        Anyone who has ever had sex understands the absurdity of this theory. The woman obsessed with spanking remains so her entire life—she never grows bored of it. The man aroused by the feeling of rubber, or the sound of a woman whispering in his ear, or the sight of blood, is unlikely to “move on” to something new. The most wicked delectations are like seawater, with a flavor that never loses its fatal pungency, no matter the dissipation of one’s tastebuds. 
        Usually these proclivities are formed early in life and remain more or less stable for years, perhaps even an entire lifetime, whether or not they are indulged. Nor can so-called perversity easily be blamed on the availability of pornography or other allegedly corrupting influences—consider, for example, Mishima’s Confessions of a Mask, which traces the mysterious origins of a passion which can only be forced into the shadows, but never erased. 
        When we discover some new source of pleasure, it often feels like a revelation or awakening of something forgotten within us. It is teleological, like romance itself—it feels like coming home.
        Then again, it isn’t always like this. Sometimes it is an experiment, and one has the sense of expanding frontiers, opening vistas, kneeling on shores where strange oceans lap against one’s hands. It is not typically a desensitized or bored individual who seeks out such things, but the opposite. It requires a scientific and poetic spirit. How else to explain the endless proliferation of horrors detailed by the Marquis de Sade?
        Madeline understood this. We enjoyed our shared tastes, which never got boring, but every once in a while, when an idea for a new experiment occurred to me, she was usually happy to indulge my curiosity and play the part of research assistant. 
        The idea came to me one evening while Madeline and I were watching a film, Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover. The death of the eponymous lover affected Madeline acutely—she was very sensitive when it came to cinema. Looking over, I became interested in the way her tears glistened on her rosy cheeks, reflecting the light from the screen. As I observed her weeping, focusing specifically on this play of light, I noticed a small trickle of translucent mucus creep out from one of her nostrils, just for a moment, before a vigorous sniffle retracted it back into her nose. 
        The image and the idea of this snot, and the sweet yet animalistic sound of Madeline’s sniffling, haunted me for days after. Of course, I’d seen her cry before—she wept frequently during films, as I’ve said, and occasionally when reading poetry, and we’d been living together now for two years. Had it been something about the drama of the light? Or was it my frame of mind? It was true I had been under an unusual amount of stress in the preceding weeks as I neared an important deadline, stress which had abruptly been relieved by the satisfactory completion of the project. Psyche freshly unburdened, my neglected libido awoke with a vengeance, like a sailor on shore leave in an exotic country. 
        “I think you should put it on something.”
        “What do you mean?”
        “I don’t want you just sucking it out of my nose. I don’t like that.”
        “What do you suggest?”
        “Hmm…” Madeline rolled her eyes up and drummed her cheek with her fingers as she considered it. “Maybe a cracker. No—a piece of toast. Spread thin, like Marmite or jam.”
        I had an inkling of what it would taste like, the flavor of rare, organic salt, with the color and texture evoking the image of robust, blue-blooded Roman snails teeming on the pavement after a heavy rain.
        For our purposes it would not be possible to induce tears by playing a heartbreaking scene from a film. Madeline was not an actress, she wasn’t trained to employ emotional prompts in order to weep on command. Any moment from the cinema, no matter how devastating, would, if transformed from a work of art into a tool for the mechanical production of emotion, paradoxically fail to produce this very effect. This was why Madeline and I typically eschewed the quick fix of cheap pornography, preferring instead the languid plots and unwonted conceits of well-wrought erotic fables.
        The instant ramen was packaged in black and bright crimson, emblazoned with images of fire and warnings about the extreme level of spice. Some weeks prior it had caught Madeline’s eye in the supermarket but she’d been afraid to try it. Now there was a good reason. 
        As I watched her peel back the paper lid from the bowl, dump in the packets of seasoning and chili oil, then pour boiling water from the kettle, I felt an acute sense of pity for every man who would never know generosity such as this. 
        Poison vapor billowed from the bowl. Madeline stirred it with her chopsticks, then began to eat.
        “How is it?”
        “It’s so spicy! But it’s really good.” 
        It occurred to me that the capsaicin—the compound responsible for the heat in chili peppers—might make its way into Madeline’s nasal excretions. How quickly did such things permeate the tissues? Was it possible that her mucus would be seasoned…
        “Oh god, here it comes…”
        She was only halfway through the bowl and her nose was running. Just as she uttered these words, there came the mechanical jolt of the spring in the toaster. I placed the slice of toasted bread on a plate and handed it to Madeline. 
        What is love without curiosity? Dull, complacent affection, sentimentality, like the adoration one feels for a landscape or a distant memory. To stand on the mountain road and look out over the sprawling forests and villages and the distant hills shrouded in mist and feel satisfied, imagining oneself as a Zen poet, clean of mind and heart. This may be peace, but is it love? 
        But then as I gazed at it, the pearlescent ooze blown onto the rough surface of the toast, I questioned for the first time the moral basis of my experiments. What if I was wrong? What if, so far, in blundering through this labyrinth I thought was love, I’d just been lucky, and eventually I’d find myself banging down the door of shame and dissolution? Only one thing was for sure—it would be an intolerable cowardice to retrace my steps. I was in too deep, and anyway I had no hope of finding the entrance again.
        I have discovered the joy of innumerable secret, feral gardens, of which there are an infinite number, but I believe there is only one ocean. Through windows I’ve glimpsed its black water where Typhon is imprisoned, and sometimes found myself walking along its shores and headlands, even looked upon the mouth of the grotto where the ageless serpent Echidna waits to devour travelers. I wonder what she looks like, exactly. I wonder if she is capable of speech.
        The sea is horrifically calm, like a neverending lake. Dark, indifferent. I close my eyes and taste it. 
        It tastes exactly as you would imagine—like salt.