A Short Story by Joshua Lawson

       When you're 26-years-old and you decide you're too young to already be a sellout you are essentially deciding to move back into your parents' house. Which is to say at 26-years-old I decided to move back into my parents' house.

       I found myself spending a healthy portion of most mornings bogarting a coffee shop's Wi-Fi to apply to what few jobs there were that I was able to convince myself were at least vaguely legit, and to submit my short stories, which were growing increasingly older as my motivation to write dwindled day by day.

       The shop had been called something else when I was a kid. My friends and I used to walk to it after school and get whatever coffee drinks least resembled coffee. It used to host open mic nights on Fridays, which I'd always told myself I would perform at as soon as I figured out how to sing and play guitar at the same time. The closest I ever got was requesting a performer play a Nirvana song. They said they knew a Pearl Jam tune.

       The new coffee shop didn't seem like an open mic type of joint. They'd completely redone the interior, replacing wood with metal and recliners with black stools.

       When I came in around 9:30 a.m. most days I ordered a small black coffee, the drink that siphoned the least from my dwindling savings. In the three weeks since I'd quit my job I'd done my best to execute something of a mental information dump of all the minutia I'd learned during my brief career. I imagined little men spray painting the walls of my brains and burning and shredding previously important paperwork with lampshades on their heads and liquor in their hands. When I offhandedly tried and failed to recall the day weekly meetings had been held I rejoiced, and as my life had not come crashing down around me despite moving on from the job that had previously defined it I deemed my decision to leave a success. But despite my declaration, and the "mission accomplished" banner the little men had hung in my head, I couldn't help but be haunted by the idea that I'd supremely screwed up.

       In fact, being haunted was essentially my primary activity.

       After bullshitting a cover letter explaining how my experience in front of a computer for two years had made me a better swim instructor than I had been before college and sending it off to a local rec center I took a triumphant sip of lukewarm coffee. About half an hour into most workdays I'd usually wound up reheating my coffee in the break room microwave. I sensed that wasn't an option in the steel cafe. I left my cooling coffee at the sleek and spiffy bar and headed to the bathroom, half hoping someone would throw it out while I was otherwise occupied so that I could pretend to be bummed at the prospect of not having to finish it.

       Even the bathrooms had taken on the look of black and steel. Though in the conversion from quaint Alaskan cabin to old person's rendition of a bar in Brooklyn frequented by millennials they had at least retained the community bulletin board hanging above the urinal. I liked to peruse the various multicolored flyers and wonder if their authors had added a little extra flourish into their language and the formatting of their proposals knowing that they'd be read by someone with their dick in their hand.

       There were several ads seeking pet care, none of which took advantage of the fact that they were asking someone to take their dog out to piss while the person themselves was pissing. There was an ad offering guitar lessons. There was an ad for a quilting group that I imagine some elderly woman had to convince her fussy old husband to hang up in the men's room for her despite his insistence that no self-respecting, red-blooded American man would ever be caught dead quilting and that he didn't want no quilting men in his home. Amongst all the bright, vibrant riff-raff there was a plain white sheet of paper with bold black font dead center.


Masturbators Anonymous

Wednesdays, 6:00PM, Towne Centre Library, Meeting Room E

You are not alone.


       How long had they gotten away with having that hung up? Had the coffee shop's management somehow not seen it yet? Had they seen it and torn it down only to have it perpetually replaced by the rogues of Masturbators Anonymous?

       My coffee was still out when I returned from the bathroom and there was nothing even lukewarm about it now. I sipped at it begrudgingly while searching for jobs in advertising to no avail, but even the bitter unpleasantness of cold coffee and a dead-end future couldn't take my mind off of the mysteries of Masturbators Anonymous.

       Was it legit? Was it legitimately a group of individuals who were full on addicted to jerking it? Was it all guys? Were they all fat? Was it a joke?

       I wasn't exactly a stranger to beating it. Often enough I'd give it a tug if I was having trouble sleeping. Though after quitting my job and waking up every morning to the task of browsing the internet for jobs that weren't there I found myself going at it often enough in the morning. The more I thought about it I couldn't really remember the last morning I hadn't. Or the last night. I could even remember a few boring afternoons I'd gone at it. At which point I had to formally ask myself, was I addicted to masturbating?

       And was I fat?

       I probably should have spent the next two days kill-spraying every job listing on the internet with my résumé, but I only got around to applying to three or four. My mind was far more occupied with the prospect that I might just have an addiction. I'd made a conscious effort to friend-zone myself but had failed on three occasions: once because I'd forgot about the aforementioned friend-zone and twice because I was bored out of my goddamn mind.

       But what did that mean?

       It's not like I was dropping everything and ruining my interpersonal and professional relationships because of some unstoppable compulsion to beat it. And yet, between Monday and Wednesday afternoon I'd rubbed three out despite an earnest attempt not to.

       Maybe I was an addict. Maybe I was on my way to becoming one. Maybe I was just bored.

       I decided to go to the meeting.

       I showed up to the library early, in part to scope the joint out ahead of time and in part because I had nothing better to do. I could remember combing the shelves in the summers of my younger days when my parents still tried to enforce some sort of summer reading regiment. I still recognized some of the old shark and dinosaur books I'd checked out in my youth, from the non-fiction section - not the children's section. Too much time had passed for my name to be on any of the library book slips. The books had some pretty great pictures, though the illustrations in the dinosaur books had only grown more out of date since I'd traced them onto notebook paper Julys ago.

       Maybe I needed to read more. Maybe that would fuel my motivation. I went to the front desk to get a library card at which point I was informed that I already had one and that I owed the library $27 in late fees for some graphic novel I sure as shit didn't remember so I told the librarian I had to get my checkbook out of my car, drove back to my parents’ house to change clothes and put on a hat, so as not to be recognized as the $27-Bandit, and wound up back at the library with little time to spare before the meeting began.

       The meeting room was towards the back of the library in the bowels of the reference section. The wall with the entrance was essentially one giant window with the blinds drawn. I put my ear to the door and listened for a moment. I would have left then if I'd had literally any other thing to do.

       I turned the doorknob, knocked softly and peeked my head inside. The room was spacious enough. In the center a round table with room for a dozen or so sat about six, two of whom were women. On the far wall was a chalkboard emblazoned with one circled, underlined word: MASTURBATOR.

       If I'd had literally any other thing to do.

       "I'm here for M.A." I whispered in my best library voice.

       "Oh good, good, come on in," one of the women said. She was older than me. Gorgeous. Looked like she should have been behind a news desk rather than amongst an Arthurian table of perverts.

       "Thanks," I took a seat directly across from her amongst a table of nervous dudes ranging from slightly older than me to slightly younger than my dad, and another woman who looked disconcertingly comfortable.

       The woman in charge looked at the clock above the door. There was still a minute or two until 6.

       "What's your name?" she asked me, exuding a polite charm. I could feel all eyes turn to me.

       "Bill," I lied. "I'm Bill. Nice to meet you." I extended a hand across the table.

       "Bill, I'm Beth," she replied, shaking my hand with a smile. Thus began an exchange of handshakes around the table. There was a Jeff and a Steve and I think a Don. The other woman's name was definitely Polly. When everyone had finished shaking the hand of everyone else it was just after 6 and no one else had entered the room.

       "Well I suppose we should get started. I only reserved this room until 7," Beth explained. She pushed her chair out and stood up, walking over to the chalk board. "As I said my name is Beth, and I'm a masturbator. I didn't feel the need for companionship in college and so I took that part of my life into my own hands. I don't regret that. I accomplished a lot and I accomplished it early and I wouldn't have if I'd wasted those years trying to get laid. But when it came time to look into that kind of thing I found myself poorly motivated. I leaned on myself. I leaned on masturbating. I'm not saying rubbing one out ruined my life or tanked relationships, or that it's evil or bad. But if you came here tonight I think you can understand that it can bring about a certain mindset. A certain complacency and an unhealthy comfort. I wanted to start this group because I'm tired of that complacency and I want help. And if you want help too I think we can help each other."

       Beth was met with something of an astonished silence, as if the room had expected a fat old slob they could hold themselves above.

       "Anyway, I suppose I just figured we'd A.A. this and people could talk if they wanted to talk. I'm hoping we're all understanding here and this can be a safe space to share."

       The other woman immediately shot up from her seat. Beth flashed a relieved smile and sat down.

       "Hi y'all. My name is Polly and I masturbate. And I'm still not totally sure it's a problem. It's like Beth said it’s not bad itself, it's the stuff around it that isn't great. I masturbate every morning. I do it in the shower. It takes all of thirty seconds. I know what I'm doing and it feels good and it's a relaxing way to start my day and I don't see anything wrong with that. But, I don't know." She hesitated and looked to Beth who offered a reassuring gaze. "I don't like sex. I don't hate it but I don't love it. It's never as good. Never. I divorced a very handsome man. I'm well aware that sex isn't everything, but it's something and I'm just not enjoying it anymore. And I think that it's because I'm pampering myself. I don't think I'm doing anything wrong. I just, I want to look forward to having sex again."

       There was a pause, then a quiet golf clap overtook the room and Polly's eyes got wet.

       "You can do it Polly," Beth chimed.

       "Yeah! You can do it," another voice echoed.

       "You just have to replace it with something else," came another voice of encouragement. "She should try working out in the morning. Try going for a run. Or yoga."

       Polly smiled, mouthed "thank you" and took her seat. One of the men patted her on the shoulder and stood up himself. The room was all ears.

       "Polly that was amazing," he began. "Hey everybody. My name is Jeff and I masturbate. I masturbate pretty often and I'm here today because my wife caught me. She caught me more than once and she saw the sign in some bathroom and she sent me here. I was gonna just go get dinner and tell her I came. But, I don't know." Jeff's lip began to quiver and suddenly he was full on crying. "My wife thinks I'm disgusting. She thinks I'm garbage, I know it."

       "You're not garbage Jeff," Polly said.

       "That's right Jeff," Beth agreed.

       "You're a human being," someone else added.

      "I know she thinks I do it because I don't like her, or because she's not enough for me, but that's not true. I love my wife," he cried. "I love my wife. I just do it because it feels good. I do it because sometimes she doesn't want to have sex and I'm okay with that but now she knows I do it so she never wants to have sex because she thinks I'm an animal and so now I do it more and more and I hate myself." Jeff collapsed into his seat and Polly and Beth took to rubbing his back.

       "We don't hate you Jeff," came a voice.

       "You're not an animal Jeff," from another.

       "Tell her you love her Jeff. She'll understand. We understand."

       "Holy shit," I whispered under my breath.

       "Thank you," Jeff cried with his head in his hands. "Thank you." Then the golf clap returned. Jeff wiped away tears and whimpered and another man bolted out of his seat and stood at attention, overcome by a newfound courage.

       "My name is Steve and I masturbate and I think I'm addicted to porn," he blurted out, as though if he didn't say it fast enough he would never say it at all. He was it. He was the one. The one we'd all come to see. The chubby bespectacled pervert knelt before our stunted pedestals.

       "I know it's gross and wrong and nasty but it's all I have. I gave up on the real thing a long time ago. But being here today and listening to Beth and Polly and Jeff I feel like maybe I gave up too soon. Beth you're right, it can be a crutch. I've been using it as an excuse and I'm sick of it. I'm better than this. I know I am. We all are. I think we can really do this guys. I think we can do this."

       I went to start a golf clap when a full on applause erupted. A librarian quickly poked her head in and shushed us, but a quiet celebration of Steve, the portly portrait of perversion, continued when she left. And if they could celebrate Steve then screw it.

       I stood up and they looked on me like a champion, like I was Arthur himself. They waited with bated breath to hear me, to connect, to comfort. They swept me up in their gaze and suddenly I was speaking, like they were tugging hidden truths from my mouth that I myself hadn't been able to unearth.

       "I masturbate," I began. "I do it a lot. I never thought about it. Never thought about why I do it. I certainly never thought it was a problem. But, but I think it is a problem. I jerk off when I'm bored. And I'm bored a lot. I don't even think about it. And I jerk of when I'm sad and I jerk off when I can't sleep and that's all well and good, but sometimes, a lot of times, I jerk off because I'm angry. And because I want to dominate something." They watched me intently, but I couldn't look them in the eyes anymore. I pulled my hat down over my face and talked into the brim. "I masturbate because in my head I can do things, I can dominate people and I can be in charge like I would never dream of in real life and I can be aggressive and assertive. And it's bad. It's very bad. I get angry because I don't have a girlfriend and I'll think about the girls that ignored me in high school. Sometimes I'll get mad at other guys and I'll think about their girlfriends. Like I'm punishing everyone. Like I'm punishing everyone by turning them into fucking conquests in my head. Punishing them for, for what? I don't even know. But I'm not that guy. I went to college. I love women. I'm a feminist. I swear, I’m a feminist. But in my head it's like, it's like a possession. I can't even remember the last time I just became aroused. It doesn't just happen. I never just have a boner. I pursue it. I go out of my way to get myself aroused. And when it's over my first thought is always that it wasn't worth it. Sometimes I will literally say that it wasn't worth it out loud. I would never do the things I think about in my head. Never. I don't even want to. But something takes me over. And I hate it. This secret, twisted part of me that no one knows about. And sometimes I worry it's the biggest part of me. That it's the majority of what I am and that the rest is a dance I do for myself." I sank back down into my chair. I wanted to writhe across the floor and out of the room. "I don't know what to do."

       I looked at the ground, but I could feel them staring. There were no hands on my shoulder and there were no golf claps. There was nothing but silence. I was shaking and I couldn't stop. My hands and arms buckled. I clenched my teeth to keep them from chattering. It was the better part of a minute before a new voice spoke up.

       "You guys I have a confession to make. I just kind of came here as a joke."

       "Yeah, as a joke," another voice quickly chimed in. "I hate to say it but the sign just looked so funny. I'm sorry everyone."

       And then familiar voices.

       "Oh absolutely. I don't have time to be addicted to porn," Steve chimed in. And people laughed.

       "Yeah just kidding," Jeff chuckled nervously. "Dudes jerk it, my wife gets it. Just kinda what we do. But that sign, like you said, too funny."

       "I just wanted to see what a meeting like this would be like," Polly said. "Figured maybe I could meet someone." At this there was more hollow laughter.

       And then.

       "Oh, well I just made that stuff up to help you guys feel comfortable. I just wanted to help folks out and figured this would be an interesting way to do it. But it, I mean, addiction probably needs help from professionals and all."

       I could feel them all looking at me and pushing out their chairs, lingering as long as they could bare it before running away and boarding up their homes.

       I took my hat off.

       "Thank god," I sighed. "Look, I'm something of an aspiring writer. Saw the sign and thought it would be a great idea for a story. I guess I sort of got caught up in it all and tried to steer the narrative. I'm sorry guys, shouldn't have tried to take advantage of you."

       "Oh no worries," Beth said with palpable relief. The room reluctantly breathed again. "Boy, what a meeting this turned out to be."

       "Yeah I bet this'll make an even better story," someone else chuckled.

       And it did. It did and here it is. The story. Proof. This. I said what I said for this. I don't have a problem. None of us have a problem. There are no problems and there is nothing to talk about.

Ordinary Man: Music from Russ Allison Loar

Ordinary Man: Music from Russ Allison Loar

The Thrift Shop

The Thrift Shop