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Brian Lobel

By Brian Lobel
Brian Lobel is a writer/performer and theater director originally from Delmar, New York. His plays BALL and Other Funny Stories About Cancer and Festival of Lights Alive have been produced in Chicago (at the Bailiwick Repertory Theatre and Live Bait Theater) as well as at over 50 theaters, universities and medical schools around the world. Brian is the recipient of the 2004 Hopwood Drama Award for BALL and a 2006 CAAP Grant from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs to develop Other Funny Stories. You can find his website here.
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And then, somehow, my head became disconnected from my hands and I began typing the e-mail address that I had tried to erase from my bodily consciousness.  The name I had sworn never to write or speak of again, after receiving an e-mail from him saying that he never wanted to speak again and that what had happened between us was never to be spoken of.  Ever.  I received this e-mail approximately 14 hours after my first experience with a man.  This man.  My former graduate student instructor, to be exact, who I ended up instructing about many things one dark January night. 

Immediately after he dropped me off a block from my freshman dorm during an ice storm, he wrote me an enthusiastic e-mail exclaiming how we should definitely hang out again… how this was weird but wonderful…and then, 14 hours later, his complete 180.  I wasn’t shocked. I mean, he was straight after all, and a former member of the Ukrainian secret service, so I wasn’t going to fuck with him.  I just decided that I hated him and that I never wanted to utter his name again. And, yet, here I was, almost a year to the day since that fateful night, typing him a casual, yet potent, e-mail.

Moments later I’m on a commuter bus and I am there, his apartment -- the same place as a year before. But this time during the day, right after he had taught one of his freshman honors seminars.  We exchanged only a few words. He presented me with a meek apology about his disappearance because of how weirded out he was, and then that he had noticed that it had been months since he’d seen me on campus.  I wanted to say that it had probably been four months, since it was roughly four months ago that I was diagnosed with cancer.  I bit my lip, cancer’s not appropriate at a time like this. This unexpected diversion was not, by the way, on my virginity-losing mission, especially because that journey was about sexual conquest, not apathetic reaffirmation of self-loathing. 

I left all my clothes on except for my little white knitted cap, which would easily get hot and feel overwhelming atop my hairless head.  He put his hand and forced my head where he wanted it to go – but he stopped for a moment, only a brief moment, looked me in the eye and smiled.  He told me how nice and smooth my head was.  He told me “I always wanted to shave his head all the way with a razor, just like you, Brian.”  I pulled my lips shut, lest I reveal the sobering secret to my beauty.  “I’ve always wanted a shaved head. I just never had the balls to do it.”  Again I bit my lip, cancer’s not appropriate at a time like this.


Is it inappropriate to talk about the virginity of someone who’s dead?  I’m pretty sure Lina would, in fact, mind and most likely be offended.  She barely ever spoke -- she was shy about her heavy Russian accent, so she preferred spending time with her violin.  I guess I’d never know whether she’d be offended or not.  With her quiet brown hair, average build and closed-mouth smile, she rarely approached or was approached by others.  To most, and often to me, she appeared unknowable.

Lina used to dance with me in Tzamarot, an Israeli folk dance troupe that was the center of my high school social life.  It was rampantly queer (without knowing it), unabashedly Zionist (and proud of it), and every Wednesday from eight to nine-thirty.  I don’t know why Lina was in the class – she hated dancing and the ridiculous girls in the class. But, it was our social life, a place where intermingling was expected and closely monitored. 

I found her fascinating.  Maybe it was her accent, or the fact that she was a brilliant violinist. I don’t know what it was, but Lina and I became fast friends.  Fast friends?  Well, acquaintances, really.  We e-mailed and saw each other when I came home from Ann Arbor… and then one day she had cancer.  A bad cancer.

My mother called me and told me.  Since my mom wasn’t working, she had offered to drive Lina to and from treatments, which everyone knew would never help.  I called once or twice – we weren’t best friends. I think I sent her a small stuffed animal that I later saw on her rack of small stuffed animals, all gifts from other well-meaning clueless empathizers.   This was months before my own cancer diagnosis, so I was still a newbie to cancer empathy.

When I finally got home from Ann Arbor so I could see her, her house smelled stale, full of death, and her neck…her neck was no longer there.  The freak esophageal tumor bulged like a Seinfeld-ian joke, but it wasn’t funny. It was going to kill her.  Seeing as how I was 19 and not a bereavement counselor, we just sat and talked about music, classes and her comfort.  Thankfully, I’m arrogant enough to fill conversation with things about me, as she was “doing” very little.  I visited her every few days for a few weeks, until one day the stale smell was almost overwhelming. A fog of death had preemptively set.  It was a feeling my mother always tried to air out of her car by rolling down the windows after she would drop Lina home from the hospital – a palpable feeling of mortality.

I knew that this was it – so I decided to reach across the divide between life and death and I’m pretty sure I mis-kissed Lina on the lips.  It was nothing, devoid of sexual energy, just a simple interpersonal connection;.  As a drop of her sweat lingered on my upper lip, I realized that, more likely than not, based on what I knew of her, Lina was going to die without sex.  Or maybe she had had sex.  Maybe I just didn’t know about it because she’s discreet and we weren’t best friends.  I hope she had had sex – or I guess I don’t really care if she had had, at least not in the way others later cared about me dying a virgin.  If she cared or not, no one would ever know. Only survivors get to tell their stories... (continue reading)

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Rob Day-Walker said:

Brilliant, concise, evocative, and funny. I should take some pointers from you. Seriously, though, stories like make me despair of ever fully understanding queer communities and lives - and I wouldn't have it any other way. Thanks for sharing.

Posted at: May 23, 2008 2:20 AM

erica said:

i kept waiting for the part where he expresses his regret for such a misogynistic crusade. did i miss something?

Posted at: June 9, 2008 9:16 PM

Janice said:

In response to the previous comment, this essay feels to me like a critique on queer misogyny. I believe the description of the scene during the Vagina Monologues between the author and Adam alludes to this. Not to mention the reference to Cynthia Nixon, a lesbian, and dare I say, feminist icon. This is a funny, challenging essay and I can't wait to read more of his work.

Posted at: June 10, 2008 9:15 PM

Seth Macy said:

Feminist lesbians be damned. I agree with the previous comment and add, he adores lesbians and considers himself a feminist. He's making fun of them, but in doing so making fun of himself. His crusade seemed more like a means to an end than misogyny. He wasn't afraid to admit the truth of his quest.

Posted at: June 13, 2008 5:08 PM

thomas spitzer-hanks said:

Having been an anxious virgin myself, I admit I'm less interested in the politics of Brian's feelings than I am in his having expressed them. I think it is really important to describe fear and desire in a masculine context (as well as all other possible contexts) because so many find these two emotional states inextricably intertwined in themselves and in social expectations of personhood. Also, I thought the piece was well-written and easy to read. Thank You.

Posted at: September 17, 2008 4:24 PM

Bryan said:

Excellent writing...intriguing storyline. I am curious though, what was with the homosexual connotations and "queer" references in your story? Once finished reading your story, I reflected that this is a story about a bisexual man struggling with both cancer and sexual identity. Was this the purpose of your story? If so, great, but I get the impression that you were trying to convey something else.....?

Posted at: May 3, 2009 3:34 AM