Statement of Record

Further From Home: The Paruresis


It was more than casual, The Desire. And it wasn’t “desire” strictly speaking, he had to grudgingly admit. Larry’s girlfriend Liz, on her way from Brooklyn and stuck in LIE traffic, texted him during the traffic’s ebb. He was sick and he’d told her he was sick, making vague reference to a weird virus going around Long Island and moaning about back pain as he lay on his parent’s complexly green couch. She should be prepared to change plans, he warned her, and maybe just grab like a juice or something and head back home, to her apartment in Brooklyn.

They haven’t seen each other for three days. They planned to visit Caumsett Park, and to hike there maybe, or just sit on this one part of a hill on the other side of the park no one went to that overlooked a marshy inlet and across to the stunning Seminary of The Immaculate Conception’s grounds and watch egrets and blue herons fly in the verdant misty primordial space between Lloyd Harbor and Oyster Bay.

Liz loves that kind of outdoorsy shit. She grew up in the New York Adirondacks where her stepfather, an obsessive runner and a Triathlete champion several times over (not including his first-place team finishes in Tupper Lake’s “Tinman Three-man Team Triathlon,” and another in Kick Cabin Fever’s “Indoor Triathlon”) spent hours of alfresco quality time with his teenaged adopted daughter, Liz, instilling in her a great love for fresh piney air and long periods of meditated-upon communion with nature.

Larry and Liz had spoken plans to swim from Caumsett’s stony beach to a point a quarter nautical mile away that you can’t get to any other way but by swimming (“Or by boat, duh,” Liz teased him), where the beach’s sand is much softer and overlooked by a cliff so foreboding and dramatic they both assumed it was probably illegal to go there. Liz had packed her one-piece black bathing suit, the one Larry said made her pale skin look flour-dusted.

Liz knew all about Larry’s using street-level narcotics in the past. He’d casually told her one night in her Crown Heights duplex that he’d chipped, mostly during times of strenuous physical pain or psychic struggle. His strictly periodic use was remedial, was his point. His purely legitimate use of high-quality heroin was totally on like medical par. “Besides, it’s not like in the movies,” he told her. “I don’t shoot up then start rolling my head and drooling and fluttering me eyelids all over the place. It’s not like that,” he said, lying naked beside her in bed. This was after their second time having sex, after their second date. Larry got real empty and useless-feeling after casual sex like the sex drained whatever interest his partner found in him in the first place. Or rather he felt guilty, like the opposite of buyer’s remorse. And his sales pitch, so to speak, continued after the sex was had. Liz’s room was clean the way hotel rooms are clean, its cleanliness evoking previous people. A widescreen TV mounted to the wall was nearly as wide as the plasma screen TV mounted to Liz’s living room’s wall, downstairs on the second floor. This bedroom TV was wired to the brownstone’s room-to-room audio system and was playing videoless pop music on some cable channel Larry didn’t recognize and sounded incongruous with post-sex therapeutic talk. Larry still had the first date jitters (this lasted until about the sixth date’s sex) and reassuring Liz she’d gotten what she paid for was a nervous compulsion. For Larry, even casual sex paid a spiritual reward, and he beckoned his post-coital chatter from his emotional well’s deepest water. After-sex conversation with a girl he hardly knew was pretty much his favorite kind. He could be honest in the way he was honest with foreign hotel clerks, or other cities’ barkeeps, or just plain old subway-riding strangers; the type of honesty that startles hidden truths and flushes them out of the neurological bushes. Chasing down self-realizations and clobbering them and dissecting them with a sexual partner made the whole thing that much more meaningful and perpetuating, conversationally.

It just wasn’t enough to be liked, is the thing. Larry needed to be understood and to witness that understanding. He was selfish, post coitus-conversationally speaking, but fresh sex turned out to be just the fecund soil emotional revelation needed in order to blossom, for reasons he didn’t understand.

Sometimes he just wanted to hurry up and have sex already so he could unload his psychic burden.

Liz lay on her side, her cheek as supple as the pillow beneath it, her kissed-raw lips parted, eyes glazed by the TV’s cool videoless light, needless. “I always knew it was something I wanted to try,” Larry told her, watching her eyes flick from one of his eyes to the other. “It’s like every other substance I tried was leading me to heroin, but not in a gateway way. I was looking for it without knowing what I was looking for.”

“It’s just so dark to me,” Liz said.

“Like when you’re hungry for a specific food-type, something off your typical menu, and you keep eating unfulfilling food until you finally try something strange you’ve never eaten and it’s totally, like, deeply satisfying.”

“What is it just feels so good, or like?”

“Like there was a vitamin you were missing that the off-menu item had in high concentration. You’re fed down to your bones’ marrow.”

“It’s just so dark, though.”

“Like how the Buddhists say everybody is suffering more than they can take, and so you have to have compassion. The first time I shot dope I fell in love with the space I was in like I inhabited a Larry-shaped pocket, and it was like safe and warm compassion.”

“You always see those guys around Bowery and Houston, sleeping standing up. Or they’re bent all the way over but still balanced. The first time I saw that I thought he was an old man tying his shoes,” Liz giggles, her eyes flicking back and forth. “He was outside American Apparel when it used to be on Houston Street. It was my third day in New York, assisting Marian LeBlonde, the first big stylist I ever worked for, on a music video shoot, and she sent me to American Apparel with her black AmEx to buy T-shirts and shit for the band. I was so excited. I probably spent an hour in the store and when I came out he was still there, tying his shoes I thought.”

“Yeah, I never get like that, that’s addiction. That’s dark.”

“He was probably twenty-five and looked sixty.”

“It’s like when you don’t notice the refrigerator’s motor’s been buzzing for hours until it stops buzzing, then your body relaxes in the quiet.”

“I’d rather go to Miami for the weekend.”

The couch’s color, if he had to name it, was pine green, though there were other brighter colored flecks involved in the couch’s pattern that he’d give unnatural names to: Tic-tac orange, and old asphalt grey or several different greys. This was the third couch his parents had bought in five years, and it reeked with its original factory scent, a flame-retardant odor probably. He tried counting the different colors to distract from the sickness, which eye movement involved made the nausea worse. He closed his eyes and spun. He opened his eyes and the room spun. Puking did not help. Eating was more like a memory than a need. He’d had dope hangovers, what, twenty times by now: rebound dilation headache, pasty mouth, muscle aches in his lower back and hips, and that feeling when a high-rise elevator ascends rapidly, except the movement was localized behind Larry’s eyes and continued for minutes. Larry imagined his brain’s frontal lobes turning the consistency of warm peanut butter and rolling around inside his forehead, rubbing against the backs of eyeballs. But other symptoms were worse, and the worst of them was paruresis.

Larry’d had a bashful bladder since day one in kindergarten. He has clear memories of its onset. His male classmates were encouraged to use the bathroom in after-lunch groups rather than going one-by-one to the en-suite bathroom his nursery school classroom had. Even separated by little plastic partitions, the observed nearness to another person—sneaker tips protruding; hair cowlick; a shoulder tip—and the felt presence of other kids waiting behind him pinched the urge. Larry imagined one of those wooden clothespins his mother hung laundry with snapping shut inside his body on whatever tube his peepee surged through. He felt a strong urinary contraction, and he imagined the pee turning hard and hot, pushing against the clothespin, hurting him. Other boys finished and flushed to his left and right. He heard others in line sniggering. He pretended to finish, made a show of shaking the dribble off and zipping up his jeans before flushing. Then he went to class and waited.

Sitting in the classroom’s back row behind his doll-sized desk, he grew more distracted by his bladder, the pressure building and stinging until peeing was a matter of inevitability, beyond will and physical control. He would not raise his hand and make a public show of his need by asking his teacher, fifteen minutes into the lesson, for a bathroom pass. Confessing his need to the class felt like displaying the organ itself. And what if the other kids figured it out? What if his shy quirk exposed him to their cruelty? Only freaks fake it in restrooms. And he waited. Then he remembered the Scooby Doo lunch box in his open front desk’s cubby, and the matching thermos inside with Shaggy on it resting a languid arm across Scooby’s head, plastic and leak proof as advertised. He was in the very last row in the back corner. He unsnapped the lunch box quietly and unscrewed the thermos lid. He was very patient and mechanical, his focus swelling with his bladder. He shifted his weight and crossed his legs against the view of his neighbor, who was busy taking notes and tonguing her cheek. He always got an erection when he needed to pee, like in the morning or during car rides. It was added biological insurance, he inferred, against wetting himself if the clothespin popped and his bladder failed. The physicality of it underlined a biological truth: embarrassment could be fatal.

It wasn’t only him who got pee boners. He’d confirmed this once with a friend, and once with a cousin, who both admitted to their erections during urinary distress. His penis’s head was now across the thermos rim. It took great attention and mental fortitude before his tumescence receded and the first drops could trickle, and another minute before the urine ran in anything close to a stream. When it finally flushed forth, radiating warmth, the plastic receptacle filled at a surprising rate, and the obtuse angle he held the thermos at elongated the liquid’s surface towards the rim. He shifted into ever more exaggerated and bent over positions bringing his thermos and penis vertical. By the time his bladder was halfway empty he was at such an extreme slumped angle it would involve professional negligence for the teacher not to notice. “Larry, are you paying attention. I don’t see you taking notes,” his teacher said. Larry retracted in haste as heads turned. He sprayed urine across his jeans and quickly screwed the thermos shut. He spent the day’s remainder explaining away the wet stain drooping down his leg. But he stunk like piss. And the rumors spreading were true, and relentless. And by the end of the day, Larry was known across Jefferson Elementary School’s kindergarten a.m. session as a pants-wetting peepee head. Holding back tears, he swore never to allow it again.

And he abided by his oath. He refused to drink his orange juice the next morning at breakfast. “What’s the matter? Is it too sweet,” his mother fretted. “I put an extra can of water in it for you.” He flexed his bladder and ran to the bathroom for one more squirt before walking to the bus stop. It was his fourth pee that morning, one ounce at a time. Just enough to fill his urethra, which jot he ejected with a Kegel flex.

There were maybe eight Jefferson Elementary kids at his bus stop, older boys and girls who made Larry’s detrusor retract on sight. He was taunted by an impulse to pee right there and then. He both needed badly to pee and couldn’t. What if his mother’s life depended on a successful squirt, he tormented himself.

A picture of his terrorized mother kneeling, a rifle against the back of her head, flashed in his mind. His bladder bared down on a teaspoon of liquid as the school bus arrived. Kids shuffled into an irregular line, Larry at the back. He dreaded the ride. How many stops were there? Seven more before reaching school? Twenty minutes to endure? Could he run to the bathroom before class started?

He was pinned beneath a wave, is how it felt: breathless, the panic running over and through him. The urge to pee was life-affirming, his bladder as critical as his lungs in this airless pre-school moment. And like the lungs that breathe seawater as they drown, his bladder released, gave in, dumped its desperation into Larry’s urethra. The bus’s brakes squeaked and snorted. As the doors swung open and the children filed on, Larry unzipped his jeans and ejected a foot-long stream into the overgrown forsythia.

This was the first self-realization Larry had startled from the post-coital brush in Liz’s Brooklyn Heights apartment: pissing into the bus stop’s flora. “That’s my earliest euphoric memory,” he’d realized in the videoless television light. “It was the beginning of the chase to feel okay,” he told Liz.

“Feel okay about what,” Liz asked. Which was a good question.

The bus lurched toward school, stopping every other block to pick up children, and at each stop, Larry checked his bladder. He sat in the first seat, driver’s side, alone. The kids along the route were older and sat in the back. It was maybe the third stop when Larry poked his bladder and felt a soupçon of hot urine. He waited for the kids to pass and settle in the mid rows. The bus lurched forward. Larry unzipped and ejected a scattershot against the seat back in front of him.

And so on, two or three more times before they reached Jefferson Elementary, and on into the following weeks.

It got so he liked peeing in unusual places, he enjoyed the security knowing he wouldn’t be forced to go in front of his schoolmates, which just the thought made him anxious. Any time he was alone, Larry peed, whether a toilet was near. He peed in the library between encyclopedia shelves; he peed in the sand under the swing set at recess. He peed in short, frequent bursts. Within days he’d trained his bladder and urethra to work in tandem; the bladder feeding his urethra, where he held urine like a round then discharged it into the umbrella bucket as he passed. Or into the super absorbent shammy cloth the janitor left behind that Larry hid by the coat racks in the classroom’s right rear corner. Larry began wearing button fly jeans, which second button he kept undone for a quick glans protrusion and a squirt at the mop bucket in the closet when he retrieved the class’s kickball.

The more he thought about peeing, the more he felt the need, and he thought about it all the time. His bladder and urethra were as articulate as his palm and fingers, unlocking a few uric CCs and ejecting them like a tomcat marking his territory. From the kindergarten a.m. session hours 8:55 to 11:30, Larry checked his bladder like a train conductor checks his watch and stayed the course to his next micturition.

One week, Larry’s kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Ora, took out an oversize graph paper book, and the students were tasked with writing the numbers 0-100 on a page. She’d started them in order by last name, which may as well have been sorcery, or just a random tombola lottery pick as far as an illiterate kindergarten-aged Larry was alphabetically concerned, and so when his turn came one morning, and he had to sit at his desk writing 0-100 in numerical order when he’d already scheduled a squirt inside the box that held the wood grained ImagiBricks Giant Building Blocks set, Larry experienced the pulmonary effects of what today he knows as a panic attack.

There was maybe a tablespoon of urine on deck, pulsing. He felt dizzy. The room may have spun. He ventilated as if he was sprinting uphill. The oversize graph paper book sat open on his desk, blank, the little imbricate squares spreading out and away, whirling phosphenes at the borders. His bladder loaded a few CCs into the chamber. “You get a root beer Dum Dum when you finish,” Mrs. Ora reminded him happily. “Here’s your pen.” He sprayed his jeans. Then sprayed again. He couldn’t finish the numbers, or rather he refused to even try it. The wet stain drooped down to his jeans’ knees. He stunk like piss. Again.

The next week Larry wouldn’t drink anything. One glass of milk at dinner, that’s it, and only because his mother forced him. He barely broke a sweat during kickball games. By the end of the week he was chronically dry-mouthed and had migraines, and after a month his skin looked like something a snake would shed. This went on to cause a whole bunch of other problems. As one could imagine.

From the moment the dope kicked, and through the next day, Larry needed to be alone before he even attempted to piss. It’d been so since the first time he shot dope. Now, he locked the bathroom door near his parent’s bedroom and stood at the toilet, his jeans crumpled around his ankles, meditating on his bladder. The first dribbles were scattershot, and Larry’d learned the hard way to stand right up close to the toilet, knees touching the bowl’s rim, and to keep his undies nowhere in the vicinity, lest they be dribbled on. His left hand aimed his glans, his right squashed his bladder against his pelvic floor. It’s like he’s juicing an orange down there. Larry worried it wasn’t his adolescent paruresis recurring but that it might be quite worse, like an allergic prostate swelling and metastasizing, or something like that. Because every seldom time he used for purely therapeutic reasons his bladder had gotten shyer and shyer, and caused urodynamic anguish. And right now Larry doesn’t even want to think about it but his memory’s torch is burning headlong into a seriously unwelcome scene: the summer before kindergarten, his Uncle’s neighbor, the one with the black moped and Marlboro Reds, inside the neighbor’s attic, is why it’s so obvious to him now why he couldn’t pee from even hollering distance of another person. In the overheated attic looking for some moped part, the neighbor asked for help finding up there that they couldn’t find. Under close dissected analysis Larry remembers the neighbor’d said, “Do you know what monkeys do when they get frustrated? They beat off.”

This, Larry tells himself, is what it’s all about. Clearing away the brush, exposing the truth. The brush being thorny emotions that conceal. He doesn’t want to think about it, but he should, is the thing, and in dope’s heaving afterglow he addresses The Truth without much emotional turmoil.

He’d told Liz he casually used dope, which if by casual one meant infrequent was true. And last night’s heavy but periodic use was strictly therapeutic, a chemical shock to his distressed limbic system not unlike the electricity used on maniacs is how he sees it. At his age, 31, it was a choice alternative to his other resort, violence, also infrequent and purely remedial, he’s explained to Liz.

He did not tell Liz he still uses dope for the past, what is it, year of their relationship, maybe one-to-no-more-than-three times per month. He’s still numb, neurologically, from last night’s therapy. Ask a medical tech, heroin’s half-life is as little as two minutes or as long as two hours. Ask Larry, he feels diminishing waves of euphoria and drowsiness through the following evening. He vigorously massages his bladder, squeezing out drops. Liz is coming and he doesn’t feel okay. He feels very sick with dope’s hangover. And with something else, like unphysical.

Feel okay about what?

“That was a good question, Liz,” he says, sprinkling the toilet water’s surface. “Like who is chasing who, here?” He visualizes startled memories scurrying from bushes, and they’re beginning to look like truth shaped bait, barbed and trailing monofilament.

It’s not like he’s never thought about the attic and the Marlboro man. He’s thought about it plenty in dope’s emotionless afterglow. He’s just never made the connection between the kindergarten trauma and his paruresis. He’s more fascinated, or entertained, than emotional about this morning’s discovery, and he looks at it, the paruresis in his childhood, the way a repairman might a loose wire in an appliance. “I think I found your problem,” he says, aiming his penis at the toilet bowl.

He’s not feeling okay. He’s feeling all kinds of pain and emotion. There’s a bag of leftover dope, he remembers, hidden in the hole he’d punched in his childhood room’s closet wall, along with a fresh 31-gauge, .5cc, 5/16-inch (8mm) needle BD Ultra-Fine™ II Insulin Syringe, which he’s decided to load up with a curative half-bag and get serious about chasing this truth into the light, to clobber and dissect it. Purely therapeutic use, he tells himself.

But he hasn’t realized it yet, and he won’t see until it’s too late: the wire’s not loose. It’s been chewed. It’s like rats are the actual problem, not appliances on the fritz. And his rats are huge, boy. Absolute terrors back there in the neurological bushes. And as he trickles into the toilet, his hunted anxiety warns him with its strangled breath that after all it, the anxiety, is not his enemy, should never have been suffocated and starved, and disregarded.

Feel okay about what?

His anxiety is way up now and pointing past bushes to places thornier than ignored emotions, where something big stalks around back there in the subconscious dark, barely disturbing the surface, is how Larry can tell that whatever it is it’s really patient.

His phone dings with a text from Liz. The traffic is moving now. She’s close.

He stands at the toilet, dribbling, thinking what to say.


Further from Home

About the author

Erik Rasmussen is the Editor-In-Chief of At Large magazine, and the former Deputy Editor at Man Of The World. His articles, essays, interviews and photographs have appeared in numerous magazines and websites. He’s written for Lexus, J.Crew, Hermes, Glenfiddich, Santoni, Zegna, and other brands. His only literary award was a grant to Long Island’s prestigious Lutheran High School for an essay about his father, My Unsung Hero — a true story with a false premise, and how he learned fiction’s meaning and value. His debut novel is A Diet Of Worms (Mastodon Press, 2018)

Statement of Record